In a nationally-watched election on Tuesday, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled by about 60% of voters in his famously liberal city. Boudin, who was elected in 2019 after serving as a public defender, cast himself as a reform-minded prosecutor focused on addressing the root causes of crime. His platform was characteristic of the “progressive prosecutor” movement: eliminating cash bail, ending harsh sentences and mass incarceration, holding police officers accountable, and declining to prosecute low-level offenders.
But Tuesday’s results, coupled with an emerging national trend towards more traditional law and order candidates, has Democrats concerned about the political viability of criminal justice reform. If Chesa Boudin can’t survive a recall in deep-blue San Francisco, the thinking goes, what chance do candidates have to run on reform in other parts of the country?
Aside from the politics, Tuesday’s results also raise questions of substance: Did Boudin’s policies make San Francisco less safe? To what degree is a district attorney — or any prosecutor — responsible for street crime? And how long should reform-minded prosecutors get to test their approach before voters move on?
Boudin’s demise was not unexpected in a city that has in recent years seen an uptick in homelessness, a crisis of opioid deaths, and a slew of brazen robberies — all stories that have been amplified on social media and in local news. There is a widespread belief that things are less safe: a March poll by the Bay Area Council, an association of business leaders, found that less than half of Bay Area residents thought the region was a “safe place to live,” a decrease from 63% in 2019.
But multiple analyses of police crime data paint a more complicated picture. San Francisco, like many major American cities, experienced fluctuations in crime following the onset of the pandemic. As the city shut down, crime moved from commercial to residential areas. There were more home burglaries and car break-ins — and fewer street robberies — than there were before the pandemic.
Reported rates of overall violent crime are at their lowest levels since 1985. But, consistent with a national trend, murders are up 37% since Boudin took office, and shootings are up, too. There has also been a spike in hate crimes against the city’s Asian residents. That muddled picture is made less clear by the fact that reported crime statistics, experts say, can often be an inaccurate representation of actual crime.
Boudin, for his part, adopted a defiant tone throughout the campaign, blaming the recall on wealthy Republicans with political vendettas. “The recall is not about trends in crime rates,” he told The Atlantic earlier this year. “It’s about money. It’s about dishonest, political power grabs.”
He repeated those sentiments in a speech following his defeat on Tuesday. “The right-wing billionaires outspent us three to one. They exploited an environment in which people are appropriately upset,” Boudin said. “Voters were not asked to choose between criminal justice reform and something else. They were given an opportunity to voice their frustration and their outrage, and they took that opportunity.”
The recall election was indeed funded in part by wealthy Silicon Valley businesspeople, including David O. Sacks, the conservative founding COO of PayPal. But it was also supported by a range of local liberal leaders, including the former chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party and multiple members of the city’s all-Democrat Board of Supervisors (the equivalent of the City Council).
San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, is also a Democrat, and one that has in the past supported many of the same reforms that Boudin championed. She declined to make an endorsement in the recall race. But last year, perhaps sensing the shifting politics that would later doom Boudin, she began adopting a tougher tone on crime. “The reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end,” she said in December. “It comes to an end when we take the steps to [get] more aggressive with law enforcement, more aggressive with the changes in our policies, and less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.” Breed’s new proposed budget, released this month, would increase funding for the police department and allocate resources to hire 220 new officers.
The divisions within the Democratic Party over how to handle issues of crime and public safety are not specific to San Francisco. On the same night that Boudin was recalled, Rick Caruso, a real estate developer and former police commissioner who registered as a Democrat earlier this year, finished first in Los Angeles’s top-two mayoral primary. He spent nearly $34 million of his personal fortune on ads promising to “clean up LA,” and has proposed hiring 1500 new officers. Meanwhile, Los Angeles’s progressive District Attorney, George Gascon, also looks headed for a recall election. (The recall campaign against Gascon, like the one against Boudin, is also a function of a more structural reality: California has uniquely permissive recall laws.)
Supporters of Boudin tout the benefits of a more forgiving approach to criminal justice in human terms: the exoneration of a wrongly-convicted man who spent 32 years in prison and the fewer people that will go to prison because of the increased use of diversion programs. They also argue that criminal justice reforms take years — decades, sometimes — to bear fruit. In the closing weeks of his campaign, Boudin focused on another point: policymakers, not prosecutors, are ultimately responsible for the conditions on the city’s streets. “The mayor’s office has primary control over a $14 billion budget. My budget is about $75 million. Pretty big gap there,” Boudin told The Atlantic.
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