Guest Commentary: Can Progressive DAs Beat the ‘Tough on Crime’ Backlash?

Chesa Boudin at an October Rally

By Miriam Krinsky

Those rushing to proclaim the vote to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin last week as a stake in the heart of criminal justice reform would have you ignore the choices made by millions of Americans in communities around the country – including many in California – in supporting the election and reelection of reform-minded prosecutors.

Without a doubt, the results in San Francisco were disappointing for those of us who share Boudin’s vision for a more fair and effective justice system.

But jumping to any universal conclusions based on a single municipal recall election is misguided. It ignores what we know to be true.

Many Americans reject a return to failed “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s and 1990s and support criminal justice reform – even if some politicians and pundits are lagging behind.

On the same day as the recall, voters in Contra Costa County reelected District Attorney Diana Becton, a reformer who had drawn fierce opposition from the police association after her successful prosecution of an officer for an on-duty killing.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta, also a reformer, moved on to the general election, and is resoundingly beating challenger Anne Marie Schubert – who sought to blame pro-reform district attorneys for rising crime levels – by nearly 50 points.

And in Alameda County – which is nearly twice the size of San Francisco – reformer candidate Pamela Price was the top vote-getter.

Even in San Francisco, a poll conducted by the San Francisco Examiner just before the recall showed that 85 percent of voters favored “expanding mental health treatment and stopping the use of jail as a mental health facility.”

Some 68 percent favored sending people charged with non-violent crimes to diversion instead of jail, and 50 percent supported eliminating cash bail. All of these are policies Boudin championed.

So, why were the San Francisco results at odds with national trends and the self-professed policy preferences of voters?

Stoking Fear

One obvious fact: a small group of extremely wealthy people desperate to maintain the status quo invested enormous sums into spreading falsehoods, misplacing blame and stoking fear. And they did so at a time when many in that community (and elsewhere) are facing anxiety, frustration and trauma in the wake of an unprecedented pandemic that disrupted lives and created tremendous challenges.

Everyone has a right to feel safe, and people in San Francisco – as well as in red and blue cities across the country – are rightfully anxious. Chesa Boudin became an easy target for that unease, especially in a city with tremendous income inequality (including the highest per capita rate of billionaires in the world) and deep-pocket interests spent an astounding $7.2 million to oust DA Boudin.

Boudin’s opponents started planning for the recall before he even took office.

Boudin’s opponents were so single-mindedly determined to remove him that they started planning for the recall before he even took office.

They refused to let facts derail their efforts, even as overall crime and violent crime went down under DA Boudin, a pandemic exacerbated existing societal challenges many San Franciscans faced – forces far beyond the realm of any DA – and police solved fewer cases.

We are seeing the same playbook in Los Angeles, where the group who opposed George Gascón’s candidacy for District Attorney has now spent millions simply to collect signatures to get a recall on the ballot.

The recall supporters in both cities recognize that they have a better chance to win in off-cycle, lower turnout races where enough money can purchase an outcome and voters are not choosing among candidates.

When voters are faced with a considered choice, we see an ongoing appetite for change in our criminal legal system.

Just last month, District Attorney Satana Deberry, a reformer who has dramatically reduced incarceration in Durham County, N.C., beat her primary opponents with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

One year ago, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner earned more than twice as many votes as his challenger, despite enormous expenditures by the police union to defeat him.

In Chicago, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx reduced the local jail population by almost 25 percent during her first term, weathered relentless attacks from police unions and went on to win re-election in 2020 by 14 percentage points against a well-funded, police-backed challenger.

And these leaders often earned more votes in the neighborhoods most impacted by crime.

Punitive Strategies Get Less Traction

Voters nationwide recognize that past punitive strategies don’t work. If mass incarceration promoted safety, we’d be the safest nation in the world. The highest crime rates in California are not in the places with reform-minded district attorneys, but in jurisdictions with the harshest prosecutors.

Research shows that reform can make us safer.

These facts have struck fear in the tough-on-crime proponents, who are raising money and fighting back with all they have.

While what happened in San Francisco is disappointing to those seeking to advance change, it does not signal the end of this movement.

Instead, it underscores its success and the resulting threat it poses to the status quo. And that should motivate all who seek a more just criminal legal system to fight back; these changes are just getting started.

Miriam Krinsky is the Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former federal prosecutor.  Originally published in the Crime Report.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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