A little more than a year ago, a public defender with a message calling for radical reform of the criminal justice system got elected district attorney in San Francisco.
Chesa Boudin, like other elected officials, walked into one of the most difficult years in the city’s history; all policy, plans, and programs have been redefined by COVID.
He also – not surprisingly – walked into to a right-wing buzz saw, with the police and some local news media attacking him almost before he moved into his office. The attacks have been relentless, and in some cases utterly lacking in any factual basis.
But through it all, he has done something no DA has done in this city in a generation: Filed charges against cops for unlawful use of force. He has helped the city close down the inhumane jail at the Hall of Justice. He has effectively ended cash bail. He has shifted resources away from small-time misdemeanors and put his deputies to work pursing serious violent crimes instead.
At lot of issues remain. The promised unit to go after landlords who violate tenant rights is still a work in progress. Community activists are still concerned that no charges have been filed in the Amilcar Lopez case.
But as a wave of pretty profound criminal-justice reform seems to be gaining momentum in this country, I thought it would be worthwhile to check in with the new DA. He granted me a 45-minute zoom interview last week, and had a lot to say about the cops, the role of a prosecutor, the carcerial society and the hope that another model brings.
An edited transcript follows.
48HILLS: Even two years ago, the idea that someone with your agenda for reform would get elected DA in any city was a huge stretch. But all over the country, we are seeing prosecutors taking a new approach. How does your victory fit into that?
CHESA BOUDIN: What led me to run was that I saw that the national movement for criminal justice reform was expanding, including the way we talk about the role of DAs. The movement that got me elected was a massive movement, from Black Lives Matter to police accountability to the basic definition of what public safety means. Things I was criticized for just a year ago became the platform for George Gascon running for DA of Los Angeles. We have created political space for this kind of discussion.
48HILLS: When it comes to police accountability, past DAs – including Gascon – have told me that it’s hard to get a jury to convict a cop. I watched the entire Alex Nieto trial, and although a lot of us believed the evidence was clear, the cops were exonerated. Now you are potentially taking three cases against police officers to trial; have things changed?
CHESA BOUDIN: I do think it’s changing. Time will tell, but I think even the police unions and their lawyers believe that it’s changing. The time when testimony by an officer wearing a uniform and a badge was the gold standard for a jury is ending. Most cops, the majority of the time, are honest, straight shooters – but the ideas that a few of them never lie has been dispelled.
CHESA BOUDIN: We are taking a new independent look at all of these cases, with lawyers who weren’t involved in the original decisions not to prosecute. But there are things we have learned, and one is that you can’t trust police to investigate police. These cases happened before we had an independent DA’s unit to investigate police shootings at the time they happen, and it’s difficult to recreate an investigation if it wasn’t done properly or was done with the intent to exonerate. But we are in the middle of reviewing all of these cases.
48HILLS: The feds just announced a big crackdown on drug sales in the Tenderloin, but a lot of activists say this isn’t going to change anything and it’s the wrong approach.
CHESA BOUDIN: I want to be clear that I fully support getting Fentanyl off the streets. I wish the SFPD would bring me a case with ten pounds of it; most of what I get is a few grams, it’s mostly plastic. But even though this case is a big deal, you can’t separate public safety from public health. I support getting Fentanyl off the streets – but at the same time we need safe consumption sites, which Trump’s Justice Department is opposing. You can’t have the US attorney say he wants to get drugs off the streets and not support safe injection sites. We also need treatment on demand; enforcement of the drug laws will never work if we don’t include the public-health component.
48HILLS: One of your campaign promises was to crack down on landlords who illegally abuse their tenants. How is that going?
CHESA BOUDIN: Honestly, it’s coming slowly. We haven’t made as much progress as I would have liked. This is an area where COVID really set us back; when the pandemic hit, we were interviewing people for a tenant protection unit, then we were given a hiring freeze. The Mayor’s Office blocked us from hiring anyone; when somebody leaves, we usually can’t replace them.
But we have been working with the Department of Building Inspection to increase the pressure on bad landlords, and we had some compliance cases. But it turned out that the DBI citation books were so out of date that it didn’t work. We have worked with the inspectors to improve the data collection, so I think we are in a better place.
48HILLS: As you know, the feds are pursuing major corruption cases at City Hall. In the 35 years I’ve been following this, it seems that almost all of the corruption cases come from the FBI, not the local district attorney. How do you see your role in prosecuting public corruption?
CHESA BOUDIN: I see my role as enforcing the law equally, no matter what you job title of what uniform you wear to work. If there is evidence of public corruption, we will enforce the law, because it’s critical that people have faith in their government. But the truth is, federal law allows much broader latitude for public corruption cases, and the punishments are much more serious. The FBI has agents who have experience in forensic accounting and law and the ability to use wiretaps, and many of these cases take multiple years. We rely for the most part on the San Francisco Police Department to make cases – and of course, that’s an agency that reports to the mayor.
That said, we have an active investigation, and soon we will have something to show.
48HILLS: The critics say that you are not actively pressing criminal charges in a lot of cases.
CHESA BOUDIN: We have filed more than 4,000 cases in the past 11 months, and I inherited 5,000 cases. But the number of cases the police present to us is down. Crime is down. The rate of SFPD clearance of cases is down.
But that narrative is the wrong narrative. District attorneys should not be evaluated on the basis of how many cases they have filed or how many convictions they have. They should be evaluated on how their interventions have promoted public safety. We have been able to safely decarcerate; we don’t see jail or prison as the only or basic response to crime. Shoplifting cases increasingly go to neighborhood courts. We use diversion to prevent recidivision. And we are freeing up courtrooms and lawyers for violent felonies.
48HILLS: Let me give you a chance to talk about what you have accomplished in the past year.
CHESA BOUDIN: This has been the most difficult year most of us can remember. Most people who took office with bold promises found they were very limited in what they could do. But we have done a lot.
We have ended cash bail.
We have ended sentence-enhancements.
We have launched a unit prosecuting economic crimes against workers.
We have expanded the range of services for crime victim.
We have created a position of manager for diversity and inclusion in the office.
We have created and expanded a restorative justice collaboration.
We have helped reduce the local jail population by 40 percent and helped close County Jail 4, which everyone agreed had to happen.
We have made a policy of not prosecuting peaceful protesters.
We are invigorating the independent investigations bureau.
We have filed historic charges in three police accountability cases.
We have cut the custody of Juvenile Hall by 50 percent and are working with the city city close it down.
We have found 40 people who are eligible for post-conviction resentencing, which is 25 percent of the total statewide.
We have created an innocence commission.
We got the last San Francisco inmate off death row.
48HILLS: The traditional role of a prosecutor has been to win convictions, which mostly means sending people to prison, which from my perspective is often inhumane, horrible, and shouldn’t be the goal of anyone anywhere. How do you see your position today around incarceration?
CHESA BOUDIN: The challenge is that so much of the conversation is about short-term responses. When people see a car break-in, they want to send someone to prison. But there’s a two-thirds recidivision rate for people who go to prison. When they come out they can’t get jobs, they can’t get housing, so they are highly likely to re-offend.
What we are trying to do is use our leverage to hold people accountable in a way that doesn’t start with prison. We can, for example, get a long sentence for someone – but tell them it will be suspended if they go to Delancey Street. Then two years later, they come out sober and with job skills.
It doesn’t always work – but it’s a much better model.