The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The bogus backlash against progressive prosecutors

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin outside his office last year. (Eric Risberg/AP)

“I feel like I was played for a fool,” says Harry Mulholland. “Honestly. I felt a little violated.”

Mulholland is a genuine hero. Earlier this year, he witnessed three assailants attack and attempt to carjack a 75-year-old woman in the parking lot of a San Francisco Safeway. Mulholland intervened, punching out the back window of the car to scare off the attackers, who then fled the scene. One of them, a 16-year-old girl, was later arrested. The others have yet to be identified.

Mulholland says the “violation” came when Dion Lim, a reporter with local ABC affiliate KGO-TV, contacted him. Mulholland says she told him that according to “multiple high-level sources,” the office of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin had dropped the charges against the juvenile assailant.

“I didn’t really want to comment. But the reporter called me out of the blue and then kept pushing me to say something,” Mulholland says. He finally relented, telling Lim, “I believe in restorative justice and I understand Chesa has a model, but … his way of going about it is not working.” (Lim did not reply to requests for comment.)

Lim, who has written multiple articles critical of Boudin, also reached out to the victim’s son over text messaging. In those texts, which the victim shared with me, Lim was sharply critical of Boudin’s office. At one point, for example, she lamented other “heinous” cases in which she wrote that charges were dropped for “trivial reasons” — unusually pointed language for a reporter. Like Mulholland, the victim says Lim persisted until she reluctantly provided a quote criticizing the district attorney. (Given that all but one of her attackers have yet to be apprehended, the victim has asked that her name not be published.)

Lim’s resulting article went viral, especially after right-wing agitator Andy Ngô amplified it on Twitter. The story resonated with Boudin’s critics, and with critics of the reformist prosecutor movement more generally. For them, it seemed to be a manifestation of everything wrong with “restorative justice.”

The problem is that Lim was wrong. The charges against the assailant were never dropped. In California, as in most states, juvenile cases are generally sealed, so state law prevents the DA’s office from discussing the case with the public. But in phone interviews, both the victim and Mulholland tell me they were informed by Boudin’s office that Lim’s story is inaccurate, that the juvenile not only still faces charges but that she also had a court date last week.

Boudin is a former public defender who was elected in 2019 as part of a surge of reformist prosecutors into DA’s offices in recent years. He’s also among the more radical of the crop. Boudin’s parents were part of the Weather Underground (his father is still in prison for a fatal armored truck robbery in 1981), and he comes from a long lineage of leftist activism. Boudin himself served as an interpreter in the presidential palace of former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.

Any wave inevitably produces backlash, and the recent success of progressive prosecutors is no exception. Law-and-order groups such as the Heritage Foundation, which at times have fashionably flirted with criminal justice reform, now run projects firmly opposed to prosecutorial reform around the country.

Boudin himself has already been targeted by a recall campaign, funded by several Silicon Valley financiers. His critics claim crime has soared since he took office, and they blame Boudin’s policies such as abolishing cash bail, compassionate release during the covid-19 pandemic and his refusal to seek sentencing enhancements.

Yet the case against Boudin’s record plays out a bit like Lim’s story: It’s compelling at first blush, but it ultimately collapses with some scrutiny. It’s true, for example, that San Francisco saw a considerable increase in car thefts and home burglaries last year. But violent crime in the city was down in 2020. Overall crime was down 25 percent from 2019. And all major categories of crime remained well below their five-year average. Murders did increase in 2020, but only by 14 percent (from 41 to 47) from a 56-year low in 2019. By comparison, murders nationwide were up about 25 percent in 2020. So far in 2021, murders in San Francisco are down 20 percent from last year.

Another criticism of Boudin is that his office failed to bring enough cases to trial last year. But the pandemic closed courtrooms across the country, including in San Francisco. Most jurisdictions in the United States saw only a fraction of the trials they typically hold each year. Boudin’s charging rates for both violent and property crimes are similar to that of his predecessor, according to Mission Local. And as Boudin points out, San Francisco police made arrests in only about 10 percent of burglaries last year. A DA can’t file charges if the police don’t make arrests.

Boudin’s critics have also amplified anecdotes about suspects released because of Boudin’s policies who went on to commit other crimes. Some of those anecdotes have turned out to be inaccurate or lacking important context. A few are indeed legitimately awful stories, and Boudin should answer for them. But in large cities such as San Francisco, where large numbers of people churn through the courts, such incidents have been seen long before reform DAs entered office.

Ultimately, the case against Boudin rests on two assumptions: that crime in the city has exploded and that Boudin isn’t charging people at the rate his predecessors did. And neither of those assumptions is true. There’s also little evidence that progressive policies such as ending cash bail or refusing to charge low-level offenses have anything to do with the spike in violence nationwide. The 2020 figures are expected to show a homicide surge coast to coast, in rural areas and urban areas, in jurisdictions with both reform-minded radicals and law-and-order stalwarts in the DA’s chair.

It’s also worth noting that the people most affected by these policies seem to be okay with them. Last month, despite media speculation that the city’s escalating murder rate would hurt him politically, Philadelphia voters reelected reformist DA Larry Krasner last month by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. The gap was even higher in high-crime areas. Chicago’s top prosecutor Kim Foxx was also reelected in November, as was St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. Both faced elevated homicide rates and vocal opposition from police unions.

Mulholland says he was skeptical of Boudin’s policies before all of this, and he’s still skeptical now. But he says he’s also more skeptical of Boudin’s critics now, and he regrets commenting for Lim’s article. The victim, a British travel agent who has lived in the United States for more than 50 years, says she was a Boudin supporter before the attack, and she remains one now. “I’m not overly political, but the little I’ve read about him I’ve liked,” she says. “I always thought the criminal system here is unjust. I never liked the idea of locking kids up and throwing away the key.”

As for what should happen to her assailant, she says: “I was upset when the reporter told me the charges had been dropped because I had hoped the girl could be persuaded to give up the others. She wasn’t the ringleader. But other than that, I hope she gets counseling and community service. A lot of these kids have been damaged, hurt by the system. I don’t know the answer. I just hope she gets the help she needs.”

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The Post’s View: Violent crime is spiking. We must still reimagine public safety.

Read the full Editorial Board project, Reimagine Safety

Lenore Anderson and Robert Rooks: No, crime survivors don’t want more prisons. They want a new safety movement.

Henry Olsen: We’re facing a massive spike in violent crime. Democrats can’t take it lightly.

Paul Waldman: In an ugly special election, disastrous ‘tough on crime’ politics are back