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News + PoliticsCrimeA tough-on-crime DA doesn't translate to lower crime rates

A tough-on-crime DA doesn’t translate to lower crime rates

New study compares SF, Sacramento—and finds that a more progressive approach to criminal justice is associated with lower crime rates.

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Crime in San Francisco under progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin and his predecessor has been lower across the board than in Sacramento, where the old-school DA touts her “tough-on-crime” credential, a new study shows.

The study by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice shows that violent crimes have fallen 29 percent in San Francisco since 2014, including the past two years when Boudin has been in office.

Durng that same period, in the tenure of conservative prosecutor Anne Marie Schubert, violent crime in Sacramento increased 9 percent.

Anne Marie Schubert promotes more prison sentences, but crime in SF has been lower. Official Sacramento County photo.

Schubert, who is now running for attorney general, promotes longer prison sentences and more aggressive prosecution of all types of crime, and blames progressive politics for failing to protect public safety. In an interview with the San Diego Union Tribune, she noted:

Like so many, I am fed up with the escalation of criminal activity around the state, which brings nothing but chaos and destruction to our neighborhoods and communities. As a career prosecutor, I understand that this will not change until we are willing to admit that certain policies have for too long prioritized criminals over crime victims.

But, as CJCJ says, those policies haven’t translated into a reduction in violent crime:

DA Schubert’s rhetoric and policies have not delivered lower crime or falling crime rates. In fact, San Francisco has sustained larger crime declines overall and achieved lower rates of violent crime than the City of Sacramento since 2014.

From the report:

During the 2014-2021 period bracketing Schubert’s term, rates of homicide, other violent crimes, and property crimes, fell faster in San Francisco than in Sacramento even as San Francisco reduced its incarceration rate (-38%) much faster than did Sacramento (-24%). While Sacramento had lower violence rates before Schubert’s term, rates have risen 9 percent on average, surpassing San Francisco’s.

Today, the City of Sacramento has higher rates of violent crime, including for homicide, rape, and aggravated assault, while San Francisco’s violent crime rate has plunged to record-low levels. San Francisco has higher reported rates of robbery, burglary, and thefts, which reflect a long-standing historical pattern deriving from its high retail density and tourist visitation.

The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) solves a far smaller share of reported crimes than police in any major California city, presenting the DA with fewer cases to prosecute. Sacramento DA’s office receives a much higher proportion of reported cases from local police departments, particularly for violent offenses.

Sacramento County’s heavy reliance on imprisonment cost California taxpayers $151.6 million, while San Francisco’s progressive approach saved the state $163.3 million

This is despite the fact that the San Francisco Police Department has a far worse record of clearing cases than the Sacramento cops:

The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) cleared just 30.7 percent of the violent offenses and 6.0 percent of property offenses in 2020, compared to 40.7 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively, cleared by the Sacramento Police Department (SPD). The SFPD is better at clearing homicide, while SPD is more effective in clearing nearly all other offenses.

Claims in media reports that DAs must “get tough” on shoplifters ignores the fact that over 90 percent of such larcenies/thefts do not result in an arrest, even for the fraction of offenses that are reported to police. Overall, the Sacramento DA’s office receives a much higher proportion of reported cases from local police departments, particularly for violent offenses, than does the San Francisco DA’s office, which accounts for some of the disparity in incarceration rates.

More:

Moving beyond simplistic sensationalism requires examining the complexities of crime levels and trends. First, if institutional blame is to be assigned, it should be pointed out that the Sacramento Police Department clears a higher proportion of reported violent and property offenses and thus presents the DA with more cases to prosecute than does the San Francisco Police Department. SFPD must bear primary responsibility for any impression, justified or unjustified, that the city does not exact accountability for serious crime.

In other words, the biggest problem with crime in San Francisco is not the DA; it’s the cops.

Here’s a horrifying example.

Joseph Williams was arrested in 2021 on charges that he murdered a seven-month-old baby boy he was supposed to be caring for. It was a mind-bendlingly bad situation—and the Chron suggests that it was the fault of the DA for not filing prior charges against Williams for domestic violence.

The argument that the Chron put out was that Boudin refused to prosecute the earlier charges, which might have put Williams behind bars and save the child, was because the victim didn’t want to testify.

That, of course, as Kathy Black, executive director of La Casa de las Madres, pointed out, was a very old-fashioned approach:

“Domestic violence is a crime against the state of California, and the district attorney’s job is to work with what the Police Department has gathered at the crime scene and develop the evidence to present a case. That’s his job — it’s not the victim’s job.”

But Boudin didn’t just drop the charges without serious review. He actually asked the District Attorney’s Office in San Mateo County, where the DA, Steve Wagstaffe, is hardly a soft-on-crime prosecutor, for a second opinion; could the initial charges against Williams have gone to trial?

Wagstaffe’s office said: No. The cases had to be dismissed—and not because of anything Boudin had done, or because the victim wouldn’t testify.

In fact, the April 29, 2021 memo from Wagstaffe’s office implies that the problem, and the reason this horrible situation took place, and that Williams couldn’t be prosecuted, was that the SFPD hadn’t done its job:

Based solely on the statements and the injuries documented, there is no reasonable likelihood that prosecution would result in a conviction. However, there were several areas of follow-up investigation that might have benefitted a reviewing attorney’s understanding of the facts and potentially generated an actionable prosecution against Williams. … it appears that there were several potential witnesses who could have provided relevant information in assessing the viability of charges who were never contacted … there are at least three and potentially more witnesses who could have provided important information related to these events.

More:

The second assault described by Ms. Burnett took place after Ms. Burnett, her child, and Mr. Williams departed the apartment building to go to the store. Ms. Burnett described resuming the argument with Mr. Williams followed by her striking Mr. Williams in the face and again being strangled into near unconsciousness. Ms. Burnett’s statement suggests this assault took place on a public street. The final incident occurred at the Montgomery BART station (described in the above referenced incident report) and also involved strangulation in a public place. The public setting in which these events took place begs the question whether canvassing for witnesses and/or video was requested. Additionally, it may have been productive to get more detailed statements from officers who interacted with unidentified citizens to see whether descriptions provided to Officer Raymond and Officer Shcaffer might qualify as spontaneous statements and be admitted …

With regard to the most recent incident (March 26, 2021), there is at least one and possibly two reporting parties identified in the CAD printout that should have been interviewed regarding what prompted them to call police and whether or not RP “Malita” has witnessed any similar events given that she lives above Ms. Burnett. Finally, there is no reference to follow up photos and/or jail calls being requested/reviewed. While all of the requested follow-up may have yielded little or no new information, it is good practice when dealing with the volatility of abusive relationships that these efforts be made.

This incident is part of a pro-recall mailer that attacks Boudin, and it cites the Chronicle story as the source.

The memo from Wagstaffe’s office is public record. Any reporter could have requested it. But nobody blames the cops, just the DA.

That’s been so much the story of this campaign.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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