San Francisco may vote against progressive DA in heated recall

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SAN FRANCISCO — The progressive San Francisco district attorney, elected on a platform of reducing incarceration, faces a pandemic-driven recall election in which brutal attacks on elderly Asians and images Viral armed robberies have tested the residents’ notoriously liberal political leanings.

Recall supporters say Chesa Boudin is inexperienced and ideologically inflexible, often seeking to avoid indicting criminals and siding with the offenders rather than the victims. Its prosecutors are not allowed to seek cash bail, try minors as adults, or seek longer sentences for gang-affiliated perpetrators.

The June 7 recall pitted Democrat against Democrat in this city of not quite 900,000 where reports of burglary and motor theft are up from 2017, but overall reported crime is down. The booster’s supporters have raised more than $7 million — double what his supporters have raised — with funding from the real estate industry and a conservative billionaire.

Boudin’s supporters say his platform is in line with voters who endorsed sentence reduction measures. They say conservative interests have exploited high-profile tragedies to make it all Boudin’s fault when crime rates are much higher in districts with traditional prosecutors.

Political pundits, and Boudin himself, say he bears the brunt of the general angst.

San Francisco residents have long accepted a poor public school system, homeless encampments, and open drug dealing as part of city life. But the pandemic has amplified discontent as schools remained closed to in-person instruction while city and police officials appeared uninterested in graffiti and vandalism.

“Part of this is due to an enormous amount of understandable frustration and anxiety that people have felt in the context of COVID, uncertainty about where our country is heading, anger at the Trump administration and the the misinformation the administration has fueled on everything from public safety to vaccines,” Boudin told The Associated Press.

The vote also comes at a time when callbacks are increasingly being used in California, said Joshua Spivak, a callback expert who works at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York.

Governor Gavin Newsom easily survived a September recall, but three San Francisco school board members were ousted in February.

“Boudin was elected in a very, very tight race,” Spivak said. “He was someone who was kind of a perfect target for an encore challenge.”

Boudin’s office has been locked in an open battle with San Francisco police, who have accused his office of withholding evidence in a case against an officer. Boudin says police often fail to present thorough cases to the prosecutor’s office for prosecution, making arrests in only 5% of cases. He made headlines when he revealed that police used DNA collected during a rape to arrest the victim of an unrelated property crime.

He is backed by the San Francisco Democratic Party and most of the 11-member Board of Supervisors. The mayor of London Breed, however, declined to take a stand on the recall, pointing to political divisions in a Democratic city where leaders embrace immigrant and gay rights but have fought for police accountability and repression drug trafficking.

Boudin, 41, had never worked as a prosecutor when in November 2019 he won a 51% victory over the more moderate candidate supported by the mayor.

Many were captivated by his personal story. Boudin was a baby when his parents, left-wing radicals from Weather Underground, served as drivers in a failed 1981 robbery that killed two police officers and a security guard. They were sentenced to decades in prison.

During the election campaign, he spoke of the pain of walking through metal detectors to hug his parents and vowed to reform a system that tears families apart. Kathy Boudin was paroled in 2003 and died of cancer in May. David Gilbert was granted parole in October.

The honeymoon period in power was short-lived.

An allegedly intoxicated parolee driving a stolen car hit and killed two pedestrians on the last day of 2020. Critics say the driver was arrested multiple times that year and should have been in jail, but Boudin’s office had declined to press charges for burglary, drug possession and auto theft. Instead, they turned him over to state agents who did not revoke his parole.

Boudin’s spokeswoman, Rachel Marshall, said the case prompted the prosecutor’s office “to start charging parole violations ourselves rather than relying on parole to do so.”

Former prosecutor and recall supporter Brooke Jenkins said the office under the former district attorney was progressive. But unlike Boudin, she said, George Gascón left discretion to prosecutors and allowed them to insist on onerous treatment programs as conditions to avoid jail time.

“We condition people to believe they can do whatever they want in San Francisco without consequences,” Jenkins said. “I think San Francisco sees the need for a little more balance between social justice and criminal justice issues.”

Leanna Louie, a Democrat campaigning for the recall, said she was outraged that Boudin’s office left a young man who viciously kicked an elderly Chinese man sitting on a walker on home treatment, the seriously injuring.

“I think everyone could do better. But that’s the worst,” Louie said. “Chesa is probably the least helpful person in this whole process.”

Marshall said the defendant was jailed for about seven months at the request of the prosecutor’s office. His lawyer then requested that he be transferred to a mental health diversion center, which the judge granted, she said.

It is unfair to single out Boudin in a complicated system that relies on judges, police and social services to do their part, his supporters say.

Rico Hamilton, a longtime advocate for ending street violence who was shot last year, was among black, Asian American and Latino leaders at a recent press conference against the recall.

“We are the leaders of change,” Hamilton said. “And to say we don’t want Chesa is to say we don’t want to change the system.”

At a former tanning salon in the gay-friendly neighborhood of Castro, which is Boudin’s campaign headquarters, the district attorney expressed pride in what his office has accomplished during a pandemic that has dramatically reduced access to treatment, counsel and courtrooms.

His office laid charges in 62% of arrests brought by San Francisco police in 2021, down from a low of 45% in its first year and tied with years dating back to 2016, according to the office’s annual report. Reported crimes include burglaries, robberies, vandalism and theft, but not homicides, sexual assaults and domestic violence.

At the same time, his office has increased the percentage of defendants who successfully complete diversion programs, some of which are state-mandated, to avoid incarceration. In May, he announced the creation of a new Asian American Victim Services Unit from the Pacific Islands.

Last year, Boudin sued the makers and shippers of ghost guns, weapons popular with criminals made from parts purchased online. His office pursued battery charges against a San Francisco duty policeman, though a jury acquitted him. While naysayers cited high turnover in his office, Boudin said he had no problem filling vacancies.

“There is a playbook that Republicans and police unions across the country are using to attack criminal justice reform. They exploit tragedies to suggest that these tragedies are the result of reforms,” Boudin said. “They don’t in criminal jurisdictions where the same tragedies occur, with more frequency.”

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