By Sophia Martin
SAN FRANCISCO – After San Francisco’s unconventional District Attorney Chesa Boudin was ousted in July 2022, Boudin’s successor Brooke Jenkins has advised prosecutorial cases throughout the city. In the wake of backlash against Boudin’s restorative approach to the position and the increase in crime, Jenkins has taken a tougher stance on crime with her provisions.
While in office, Boudin advocated for some of the most progressive criminal justice reform policies in the country, including no cash bail as well as reducing jail and prison populations. The former public defender’s run for District Attorney in 2019 concurred with national discourse about the need for criminal justice reform due to mass incarceration disproportionately impacting marginalized communities, which many argue aided in his campaign’s popularity.
After Boudin was elected, however, the conversation of reform in the city began to fizzle as a narrative about a nationwide crime wave gained steam with a particular focus on crime rates in San Francisco. Prior to Boudin’s recall election, The Atlantic reported, “The city continues to have relatively high rates of property crime, and the pandemic seems to have shifted criminal activity away from touristy areas to residential ones. More people are getting their cars stolen and apartments broken into, while fewer people are getting their bags snatched.”
The changes of crime in San Francisco with Boudin as active District Attorney was more of a shift from crime in tourist to residential areas rather than an overall spike. This pattern follows trends of many other cities across the country, much of which can be attributed to the pandemic. Regardless, a number of San Francisco residents saw the perceived rise in crime as a result of Boudin’s policies, including not prosecuting houselessness cases and diversion programs for first time offenders, and were displeased with his performance as a district attorney. After serving only two and half years of his four-year term, in July, 2022, San Francisco residents recalled Boudin in a 55 to 45 vote.
UC Berkeley alum Brooke Jenkins became Boudin’s successor after the recall, and has also referred to herself as a “progressive” prosecutor. During Jenkin’s time in office, however, she has scaled back many of the progressive measures implemented under Boudin.
Thus far, Jenkins has removed Boudin’s no cash bail system, an integral part of his campaign. Removing cash bail as a factor in allowing individuals to be released pre-trial means that lower income people charged with nonviolent offenses will not be forced to stay incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to be released. In fact, she has expanded the use of cash bail in misdemeanor cases. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), this policy disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color. “If they can’t afford bail, people who have not been convicted of a crime may languish in county jail while more affluent people facing the same charges are released.”
Furthermore, Jenkins’s punitive punishments for nonviolent offenses starkly contrasts with the prior restorative policies meant to provide alternatives to incarceration with a focus on rehabilitative measures for convicts. While in office, she has consistently prioritized waging a war on drug offenses by promising to prosecute more drug charges and increasing sentences for people charged with selling drugs. The District Attorney’s Office says this is an attempt to curb drug addiction in San Francisco. However, according to the ACLU, “increasing sentences for drug-related activity does not deter substance use or reduce the availability of drugs; it only consigns more people to our dangerously overcrowded jails, removes individuals from their families and communities, squanders scarce public resources and worsens the overdose crisis.”
For the following years after 2020 and in the wake of several instances of police brutality that were recorded, a national discussion about implementing reformative measures to address the inconsistencies and disparities in the criminal justice system was widely supported, especially in San Francisco. This change in perspective in such a brief time potentially indicates the need for a further conversation about the dedication cities have to remedying systemic harm done to communities through mass incarceration and tough on crime policies. Law and order media outlets and politicians have pushed the idea that crime is on the rise across the country, and they targeted San Francisco, painting a picture of the city as a city of crime. This rhetoric caused many residents to quickly turn on the idea of a non-conventional district attorney’s office. As a result, we have reverted back to the traditional system of criminal justice that was just beginning to be widely criticized.
Sophia Martin is a writer for the Vanguard at Berkeley.