By Nicholas Turner and Sam McCann
Prosecutors can do a great deal to reduce harm and mitigate racial injustice in prosecution, but they do not control the policies or purse strings that govern investment in basic needs. As such, former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin simply did not have the power to invest in community services that are proven to actually build public safety. His recall this June shows that progressive reforms can’t happen in a vacuum.
Polls show that voters in San Francisco want their district attorney to review and reverse wrongful convictions. They want the office to combat wage theft, to stop prosecuting children as adults, and to abolish money bail.
Boudin implemented all those policies in his time as San Francisco’s district attorney. He also helped to reduce violent crime to its lowest rate in nearly four decades. But voters still recalled him. How did a progressive prosecutor who implemented a raft of popular policies get pushed out of office in San Francisco, of all places? And why did San Francisco Mayor London Breed appoint a replacement who is against those policies?
National media has clamored to pin the loss on a lack of support for the movement to end mass incarceration. But Boudin’s removal from office is far from the death knell that opponents would love to hear. Indeed, on the very same day as the recall, progressive candidates won primaries in Alameda and Contra Costa counties—just across the bay from San Francisco. Another progressive, Attorney General Rob Bonta, won a statewide primary that day, too.
In reality, the movement to end mass incarceration is nowhere near as damaged as opponents would like to believe. Yet this moment does highlight a tension between communicating reforms to communities and falling back on older, but politically safer, policies. We would do well to reckon with the actual reasons why Boudin lost if we are to consolidate support and build safer communities moving forward. That means taking a hard look at public safety amid a housing crisis, the need for investment alongside harm reduction, and the challenges of electoral politics.
Public safety amid a housing crisis
Boudin, a former public defender, took office in 2020 at the height of San Francisco’s rapid gentrification. At the time, a salary of $117,400 was deemed low income in the city, and the rapid influx of rich tech workers widened the wealth gulf between them and working-class San Franciscans. That gap had already priced thousands of people—a large portion of them people of color—out of their homes. Rents more than doubled and evictions skyrocketed. Homelessness followed.
As a prosecutor, Boudin could not undo the root causes driving displacement. Instead, he could mitigate their harm. He decriminalized what are commonly referred to as “quality-of-life” crimes, like public camping and public urination. He also sought alternatives to incarceration to address substance use, including investments in diversion programs proven to reduce harm.
Those policies drew the ire of people who wanted to police the housing crisis rather than invest in the public housing and support services needed to address it. That vocal minority repeatedly, loudly, and falsely conflated poverty and homelessness with crime and pinned the blame on Boudin.
But polls showed San Franciscans felt unsafe and wanted affirmative solutions, not just harm reduction. And as district attorney, Boudin simply did not have the power to invest in community services that are proven to actually build public safety.
Boudin’s recall shows what can happen when policymakers and district attorneys work at cross purposes. To effectively move the city beyond policing poverty, Boudin’s policies needed a synchronized effort to put money into housing, treatment, and social services—popularly supported efforts that can help reduce crime and build safety. But that spending power usually lies with the legislature or mayor.
Mayor Breed instead rolled out “tough on crime” initiatives. She pledged that the city would be “more aggressive with law enforcement” as she declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin neighborhood, where many people experiencing homelessness live. Her response to the housing crisis reinforced the message of Boudin’s critics and undercut his efforts. Following his loss, Breed appointed Brooke Jenkins, a former prosecutor who quit to become the face of the recall campaign, as Boudin’s replacement.
With Boudin no longer a convenient scapegoat, Breed will now face a similar challenge to New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who has also demanded aggressive policing and prosecution. When “tough on crime” policies fail to deliver public safety, the lack of investment in vital social services becomes all the more glaring.
A gentrifying city
Boudin’s initial election in 2019 was far from a mandate: he received just 36 percent of first-place votes in a race that saw only 42 percent turnout. While in office he never built a coalition comprising a majority of the electorate, despite the popularity of his signature policies.
That left Boudin vulnerable to exactly what happened during his recall: the same vocal minority that favored policing the housing crisis raised $7.2 million (more than double what his election campaign had raised) to remove him because he was decriminalizing poverty. Real estate and tech special interest groups were among the effort’s largest donors. In effect, the recall effort was being fueled by the same forces that had fueled the housing crisis.
The housing crisis changed the electoral map, too. Majority-white neighborhoods voted most decisively to recall Boudin, while many neighborhoods with large communities of color voted against the recall. Philadelphia provides a case study of how overpoliced communities (often communities of color) tend to vote for smart criminal legal system reforms: Larry Krasner, a progressive district attorney very similar to Boudin, just won re-election in a mandate from a Philadelphia electorate that is majority-Black.
The fight for justice continues
The challenges Boudin faced underscore the work ahead. We need investment in services that are proven to work, rather than millions upon millions of dollars spent on policies that have a track record of failure. If we fail to secure that support, it leaves the progressive prosecutors we do elect vulnerable.
And we need communities to stay engaged—not just in electoral politics (though that remains critically important), but in local politics too—and to continue to advocate for social services, housing, and other supports that prevent displacement and build public safety.
But amid these needs, and even amid Boudin’s loss, there remains optimism. Krasner’s recent reelection and the success of his policies in Philadelphia show that a smarter approach to public safety can still win. So too does the important work undertaken by Vera’s Motion for Justice partners, who are reducing racial disparities in prosecution across the nation. Prosecutors have the power and responsibility to work to address some harms of the criminal legal system—particularly its impact on communities of color. We need to continue to empower those committed to doing so.
Originally Published by Vera Institute of Justice. Nicholas Turner is President & Director of Vera. Sam McCann is Senior Writer for Vera.