District Attorney Candidate Chesa Boudin on His Plans to Reform San Francisco's Criminal Justice System
We spoke with Chesa Boudin, the progressive public defender running to become San Francisco’s next District Attorney. He is backed by Angela Davis, Shaun King, and other leaders in prison reform and is a part of a nationwide movement working to elect progressive prosecutors, like Larry Krasner and Rachael Rollins. Chesa discussed how his experience growing up with incarcerated parents shaped his views on criminal justice, why he believes our system needs reforming, and the importance of the District Attorney position.
MFU: Can you talk about how growing up with incarcerated parents shaped your beliefs about how we deal with crime and incarceration?
CB: My earliest memories are of passing through metal detectors and being searched by prison guards just to give my parents a hug. I have never known my father outside of prison. I was raised by an adoptive family. I have been and always will be perceived and judged through a lens that includes my parents, their actions, and their crimes. And the truth is, I am one of the lucky ones. Though most people would not wish for the childhood I had, mine was better than most children whose parents are incarcerated. I’ve seen kids I knew from visiting our parents in prison end up in prison themselves.
The role of the District Attorney is to keep communities safe for everyone. Honesty demands that we take a hard look at whether the ways in which we prosecute and sentence criminal defendants and the collateral consequences of those choices are impeding our goal of community safety. These collateral consequences include: financial, emotional, and physical destabilization of families and communities; preventing access to education; preventing access to medical and mental health care; and myriad others — all of which are directly contrary to keeping our communities safe.
MFU: The movement your parents were a part of, the Weather Underground, was known for using violence in their political activism. Did this also shape how you perceive violent versus nonviolent political opposition?
CB: When I was a baby, my parents were incarcerated for driving the getaway car in an armed robbery that tragically took three people’s lives. Before that, long before I was born, as members of the Weather Underground, my parents used other acts of violence in opposition to the war in Vietnam and to police killing members of the Black Panther Party and other state violence. I do not believe in the use of violence under any circumstances except for self defense or defense of others. This principle applies to every kind of violence no matter the perpetrator.
This means, among other things: prioritizing violent crimes — such as sex crimes — instead of personal use drug misdemeanors; addressing and correcting the pervasive issue of police brutality which disproportionately affects black and brown communities, and ending mass incarceration which is a structural form of violence.
More than any other District Attorney that San Francisco has ever had, I will regard a prison recommendation — where we are near certain that a criminal defendant will suffer physical emotional and mental violence, and where we are near certain that it will destabilize their family and community — as an act of violence in and of itself. Thus prison is a necessary evil and should be a last resort when we have no other adequate alternatives to hold people who’ve caused harm accountable and to keep our communities safe.
Violence begets violence, and as District Attorney I promise not only to hold the perpetrators of violence accountable for their actions, but I also promise not to enable violence within the criminal justice system itself. I will do this by implementing non-violent strategies to dealing with criminal cases including a restorative justice system, offering mental health care to those in need, and giving victims a voice in every case.
MFU: You’ve said that “the quickest way to change lives through meaningful criminal justice reform is to elect progressive prosecutors.” Can you say more about this? How can electing a progressive DA be transformative for a community?
CB: The District Attorney is the most powerful actor in the entire criminal justice system. He or she has the power to decide who to charge with crime, what crimes to charge, what plea deals to offer, when to turn evidence over to the defense, what sentence to recommend. Each of these decisions can be enormously consequential. And each is a mechanism for transforming how we approach public safety. To give one example, we spend an enormous amount of resources arresting and prosecuting low-level drug offenses, particularly sales. But we spend very few resources prosecuting wage theft, wrongful evictions, or other things that push people onto the street and often cause them to turn to drugs in the first place. By changing those priorities, the District Attorney can help transform communities—fewer people on the streets, fewer people using drugs, fewer families ripped apart and communities destroyed.
A District Attorney has the authority to make charging decisions. This means that a District Attorney can challenge the legitimacy of laws by declining to bring charges in certain cases. The types of charges a District Attorney declines to bring has a ripple effect and change the culture of a community.
For example, as District Attorney I promise never to prosecute homelessness or consensual sex work. By prosecuting sex workers we make them vulnerable to being robbed, raped, or worse without any ability to seek help or protection. We also make it harder to arrest and prosecute pimps and sex traffickers. It is more important to address the issue of sexual violence, trafficking and robbery than it is to criminalize consensual sex work.
But it’s about more than all of that. It’s also about involving community members in decisions that affect their communities. I’ll regularly meet with people and organizations from communities that are most impacted by decisions made by my office. I want to learn from them what they need, and I want to be held accountable. And I’ll do more than just meet with them, I’ll work to hire staff from impacted communities, including formerly incarcerated people. Right now, the people most affected by decisions made by criminal justice system actors are excluded from those decisions. That will change when I am District Attorney.
In most District Attorney’s offices success is measured in ways that have little or nothing to do with justice and public safety - the focus is on conviction rates and length of sentence. When I’m District Attorney, we’ll change the culture of the office by measuring success through metrics including recidivism rates, victim involvement which actually promote justice and public safety.
MFU: For those who might not be familiar with the concept can you explain what the criminalization of poverty looks like?
CB: Criminalizing poverty means punishing people for being poor. It means prosecuting people for things they do that arise solely out of their poverty. Laws that criminalize homelessness by outlawing panhandling, sleeping outside, living in vehicles, food sharing—this is what the criminalization of poverty looks like.
In San Francisco, two-thirds of jury trials are misdemeanors, quality-of-life offenses, crimes having to do with addiction, drug abuse, and homelessness. We need to reallocate resources to crimes that matter the most to victims, that have the longest impact and trauma for victims, and that have the highest stakes and consequences for people accused.
One of the more visible ways poverty is criminalized in San Francisco is the forced movement of people experiencing homelessness. People are constantly approached by the police and made to move, whether in tents or not, and are often mistreated in the process and arrested for not complying quickly enough or in the right way. Imagine having nowhere to go, no refuge from the streets, no place to be protected, and then on top of it being unable even to stay in one place. It’s demeaning and cruel. Homelessness in San Francisco is, of course, a difficult issue. It’s beyond the scope of the District Attorney to solve alone. But what I will do as District Attorney is refuse to prosecute crimes that arise out of someone’s poverty or homelessness and demand that my partners in city government work to provide safe places for every member of our community to sleep. The jail should not be a homeless shelter.
The city has been willing to invest so much money in punishing people for crimes of opportunity, crimes of poverty, the war on drugs. And yet there’s so little willingness to step up before crimes are committed and say, how can we help get you off the street and on your feet? How can we help protect your housing? How can we help protect your job? How can we help treat your mental illness with something other than solitary confinement in jail? I’ll work to reduce contacts with the criminal justice system, especially where those contacts would arise out of someone’s poverty. And when those contacts do occur, I’ll make sure they’re opportunities to connect people with services rather than just forcing them to move down the street or around the corner or into the next neighborhood until the next time.
MFU: It seems countries that treat their incarcerated citizens more humanely have lower recidivism rates as a result. How can we work to change how incarcerated people are treated?
CB: Well, even before we get there it’s important to work to incarcerate fewer people altogether. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the recorded history of the world, in both absolute and relative terms. That has to change, and one of the primary reasons I’m running to be San Francisco’s next District Attorney is because I believe I can help to change it.
Next, we need to rethink incarceration as the primary tool for addressing crime. In the conventional process, first of all, most people who harm others are never caught, so they can’t be held accountable. The majority of even violent crime goes unreported. But for those crimes that are reported, and where the responsible party is caught, incarceration is often counter-productive. Incarceration is criminogenic, it increases recidivism. It exacerbates conditions that lead to crime—trauma, lack of economic opportunity, exposure to violence, isolation—by reproducing those conditions. And the vast majority of crime victims, when asked whether they want people held accountable through incarceration or alternatives to prison, choose the latter. That’s why I’ll introduce a broad restorative justice program that gives every victim of crime a voice, and a choice, in how we can help them become whole.
For people who do end up incarcerated, the conditions of confinement are not supposed to be punitive. In San Francisco, like elsewhere across the country, people are locked away in unsanitary, unsafe, and inhumane conditions. And what’s worse, we’ve had numerous examples here of treatment of incarcerated people that is itself criminal. You’ve probably heard of the Sheriff’s fight club scandal, where several incarcerated men were forced to fight by Sheriff deputies inside the jail, for food and for the deputies’ enjoyment. Charges were filed but the case fell apart when the Sheriff’s legal team failed to preserve evidence that would have been used to prosecute the case. And more recently, we’ve had another surge in accusations that inmates are being beaten by some deputies. So, one important way to improve treatment of incarcerated individuals is to hold law enforcement accountable when they violate the law. That’s something I’m deeply committed to.
MFU: What are the main things that set you apart from your opponents?
CB: For one thing, I’m the only candidate who has led impact litigation campaigns to end injustices in the criminal system. I helped lead the fight against money bail in California and was the founding chair of the board of Civil Rights Corps, one of organizations leading impact litigation efforts across the country to end discrimination in criminal justice. In contrast, each of my opponents has used money bail to detain poor defendants. It’s a critical difference. I’m the only candidate who saw from very early on that it is unjust to jail a person simply because she can’t afford to pay an amount of money that a wealthy person could pay to secure her freedom. Poor people across our city and state have lost their freedom, their jobs, their children, their homes, all because they are poor. Most of my opponents have come to see that this is wrong in the context of their political campaign, but I’m the only candidate who has spent years fighting it. I’m also the only candidate who has sworn that once elected I will immediately prohibit my deputies from ever putting a price tag on freedom.
I’ve never prosecuted immigrants and caused them to face consequences they wouldn’t have faced if they were a citizen. I doubt any of my opponents can say the same. In fact, not only have I not actively harmed immigrants in that way, but I’ve sought to protect them. I helped create the first-ever Immigration Unit at the Public Defender’s Office and persuaded the Sheriff not to honor immigration holds before San Francisco had a formal sanctuary city policy for the jails. I’ve pledged to do the same at the District Attorney’s Office.
I’m the only candidate who, from infancy, has visited an immediate family member behind bars. In fact, the majority of Americans have an immediate family member either currently or formerly incarcerated. I don’t think any of the other candidates share that experience, which I do, with the majority of Americans. It’s an important distinction because it gives me a perspective that the other candidates don’t have. I know deeply and personally the destruction and pain that a prison sentence can bring to a child’s life, to a family, to a community. I’ve lived it. That understanding has informed my actions as a person and as a public defender, and it will inform my actions as District Attorney.