Chesa Boudin, who won his race for San Francisco district attorney in 2019 on bold promises to “demand police accountability” and eliminate “racial disparities at every step of the criminal justice system,” is facing a recall campaign on Tuesday.
Amid an increase in murders, robberies and racially motivated crimes in San Francisco, voters are unhappy. One poll this spring found two-thirds of voters support the effort to oust him.
“People are fed up,” said Brooke Jenkins, a prosecutor who worked for Boudin before quitting and joining the recall campaign, which has raised more than $7 million. “There is no sense of accountability. There’s no justice for victims. And there’s nothing that deters criminal actors from coming into San Francisco.”
Boudin rejects the characterization. He says he takes crime and safety seriously and has made research-backed reforms to the DA’s office that aren’t contributing to the recent surge in homicides — which is happening across the country, not just in San Francisco.
“What I can say is that every single reform we’ve implemented is one aimed at making our city safer,” Boudin told Grid. “People say I want to prosecute police not criminals, but every single case I prosecute relies on police officers as witnesses. If we help cover up police violence and excessive force, it does damage to the integrity of the criminal justice system.”
Boudin was part of the “progressive prosecutor” movement that swept across the nation in recent years in Illinois and Pennsylvania, as well as far less liberal states like Texas and Florida. But in the last year, pro-police politicians and prosecutors promising to reduce the crime rate have beat out progressive Democrats in Minneapolis, Seattle and New York.
Former Republican Rick Caruso, a billionaire real estate developer running for mayor of Los Angeles, is focusing on public safety and promising to “invest in police.” Once considered a long shot with no experience in government, Caruso is now a leading candidate in Tuesday’s primary.
National Democrats fear they will face this same pressure from Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows voters trust Republicans on crime by a 12-point margin. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been warning House Democrats that Republican attacks on “defund the police” work and has been advising them to be aggressive in countering such attacks.
But this election-year rush to respond to voters’ concerns over crime could tank once-popular efforts to reform sentencing and the criminal justice system. Over the last decade, the criminal justice reform movement has built a coalition of Democratic and Republican supporters, using academic research to support their argument that changes to the system will reduce, or at least not increase, violent crime.
Now, even in liberal San Francisco, voters are finding the idea of getting “tough on crime” appealing, a shift that could change the trajectory of the movement.
Rising crime is bad electoral politics for Democrats
Crime rose during the pandemic, especially homicides, which shot up by nearly 30 percent in 2020, according to FBI data. The jump troubled criminologists who see homicides as a key indicator of violence. Other forms of violent crime like aggravated assault also increased, and carjackings surged in many cities.
Democrats — especially those who hail from big cities — may have to confront concerns over crime so they can address policy issues like the economy, said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who made ads about the 1994 crime bill for President Bill Clinton.
“The issue of public safety — and sense that things are out of control — may be what Democrats are facing in the fall. And it may be an impossible situation to get out of because Democrats have been trying to avoid a confrontation on either side” politically, Sheinkopf said. “If you’re a Republican, you can say that police reform isn’t working — because we’re not safe.”
Recent rises in crime are still significantly below crime rates in the 1990s, the last time crime was a top election issue. But voters today seem to believe crime is significant — and many believe it has been getting worse, not better, for years. Between 2008 and 2016, there was a large, yearslong decline in violent crime — yet 57 percent of voters believed crime had gotten worse, according to polling by the Pew Research Center.
Americans are increasingly concerned, especially about government officials’ handling of crime increases. Forty-two percent of Americans told the pollster Gallup they feel “very dissatisfied” about the country’s policies to control crime, an all-time high since Gallup started asking the question in 2001. That share is a sharp increase from 2016, when 23 percent of Americans reported feeling “very dissatisfied,” and 2020, when 22 percent did.
Crime has historically been more of a concern for Republicans than for Democrats. It’s why politicians like Richard Nixon and Donald Trump successfully invoked “law and order” as a powerful motivator in elections. But occasionally, concerns about crime have crossed party lines — most recently in 1994, when Democrats tackled national concerns about crime in the midterm elections by passing a crime bill.
At the time, close to half of voters believed crime was the No. 1 issue facing the country, ahead of other pressing issues like the economy, according to Jeff Jones, senior editor at Gallup. Today, only 2 percent of voters believe crime is more important than other major problems, like inflation.
Democrats move right on criminal justice reform
Among party leaders, Democratic calls for police accountability and other criminal justice reforms are this year taking a back seat to a tough-on-crime stance.
During the 2020 elections, largely responding to the protests after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Democrats called for reforms to policing and incarceration. Vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris told ABC News that “the status quo way of thinking about achieving safety is really wrong when it assumes that the best way to achieve more safety is to put more police on the streets.” Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, a moderate, proposed ending cash bail and expanding Justice Department investigations into systemic misconduct at police departments. These proposals helped appease progressive calls to “defund the police” while appealing to a wider swath of voters.
Biden has been clear in his rejection of the “defund the police” movement. This year, he explicitly batted it down during the State of the Union, saying that “the answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training.”
Republican leaders gave the remark a standing ovation.
Biden proposed spending billions of dollars more on policing in his latest budget proposal, including funds to catch so-called ghost guns and grants to local law enforcement agencies.
California could be a bellwether on crime at the ballot box
Californians also have a sense that crime is getting worse. Polling by the University of California, Berkeley, earlier this year found 78 percent of California voters believe crime has increased in the state recently, and 65 percent believe there is more crime in their area. And a majority of voters said they would support a change to Proposition 47, which lessened sentences for some theft and drug felonies in the state.
The state, which in recent years embraced sentencing reform and tried to curb mass incarceration by freeing tens of thousands of prisoners early, could prove a bellwether for others.
California’s primaries will test progressive criminal justice policies in San Francisco, Los Angeles and in a statewide attorney general race, in which Attorney General Rob Bonta is being challenged by Anne Marie Schubert, a Republican-turned-Independent who is the current district attorney for Sacramento. The candidates running to the right of incumbents have promised to get tough on crime while avoiding the police brutality and racial discrimination of the past.
If this relatively conservative set of candidates wins at the ballot box, it will send a signal across the country — and especially to Republicans looking to unseat Democrats in the midterms — that crime could sway moderate Democrats and Independents in blue cities and suburbs who, five years ago, may not have been as concerned.
In San Francisco, the recall campaign against Boudin says he takes a “very radical perspective” toward criminal justice reform and blames him for the rise in Asian American hate crimes.
Several of the ads feature victims like Jason Young, a father whose 6-year-old son was shot and killed during Fourth of July fireworks in 2020.
“I never in a million years thought that my son, let alone any 6 year old, would be gunned down on the streets of San Francisco and not get any justice,” said Young. Boudin did eventually win a guilty verdict in the case. But one of the alleged shooters was 17 years old at the time of the murder and was tried as a minor, not an adult, giving him a maximum of eight years in prison — sparking widespread criticism from people including the father, Young, who believed Boudin should have pursued a tougher sentence.
Boudin stands by his record. “It’s dishonest and manipulative for the recall to suggest that crime trends that are horrific across the country, like anti-Asian violence, have anything whatsoever to do with me and my policies,” Boudin told Grid.
Boudin did fulfill a number of his campaign promises. He eliminated cash bail in San Francisco and limited the use of a prosecutorial tool called “gang enhancements,” which allow prosecutors to bring more serious charges against people involved with gangs but, critics say, leads to gang members who are often Black or Latino being given disproportionately long prison sentences. He also reached an agreement with the police department that his office would be the lead investigator for all police shootings in the city, though the police later pulled out of the deal.
An analysis of case data by the San Francisco Chronicle found Boudin charged a similar share of homicide cases as his predecessor and won more often. He also brought fewer charges on low-level offenses like theft and disorderly conduct.
Boudin maintains the recall against him is manipulating data and anecdotes to prey on voters’ pandemic-era fears.
“It’s part of a national playbook,” Boudin said, citing the recall campaigns for DAs in Los Angeles and Virginia, and attempts to hamper other progressive prosecutors in Chicago and Philadelphia. “Since they can’t win in head-to-head elections, they’re using a playbook coast-to-coast, precisely because they can go into a recall election without a candidate or platform.”
Alex Leeds Matthews and Anna Deen contributed to data visualizations for this article. Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing.