The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Boudin’s recall proves Democrats have lost the public’s trust on crime

District Attorney Chesa Boudin tries to distribute election information fliers to potential voters on June 7 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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More people died in San Francisco last year from fentanyl overdoses than covid-19, yet District Attorney Chesa Boudin did not convict a single person in 2021 for dealing the lethal opioid.

This helps explain why one of the most liberal cities in America voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to recall Boudin and repudiate the prosecutor’s soft-on-crime approach.

Boudin’s defeat is the latest wake-up call for Democrats, who have lost the public’s trust on criminal justice and play down voter anxieties about crime at their peril.

Chesa Boudin admits to some missteps. Watch him discuss them here.

Court records obtained by the San Francisco Standard show Boudin’s office convicted just three people for the charge of “possession with intent to sell” in 2021 — for meth, heroin and cocaine. His predecessor secured more than 90 drug-dealing convictions in 2018.

Fentanyl is widely available at open-air drug markets in the city, and the proliferation of the synthetic opioid is inextricably linked to other crimes. Junkies break into cars and shoplift from stores to feed their addictions. Many become homeless. They squat in tent cities, defecate on streets, trade sex for drugs, shoot up in front of children and, if they’re not in some stupor, harass productive members of society who are trying to do honest work.

Burglaries are up more than 45 percent since Boudin took office in January 2020. Walk around, and it won’t take long to see smashed car windows — even in neighborhoods such as tony Pacific Heights that historically have been insulated from such hooliganism. Eleven Walgreens outlets have closed in the city since 2019.

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Boudin ran three years ago on a platform of “decarceration,” and he used the coronavirus pandemic as cover to enact his extreme agenda. He has bragged about reducing the jail population by around 40 percent and ending cash bail. In practice, Boudin almost seemed to care more about criminals than their victims, whether Asian Americans experiencing hate crimes or merchants suffering from smash-and-grab attacks.

Boudin insisted that he took the drug epidemic seriously but focused more on treatment than imprisonment. He said his office pursued diversion programs or agreed to lesser charges in many cases, such as “accessory after the fact,” because drug-dealing convictions are grounds for deportation. “A significant percentage of people selling drugs in San Francisco, perhaps as many as half, are here from Honduras,” Boudin said in a video posted to Twitter last year.

Perry Bacon

counterpointCentrists’ new war on crime is also a war on the left

Even for San Franciscans, this catch-and-release approach was far too radical — especially as overdose deaths snowballed. Boudin’s performance prompted the Justice Department to pursue drug-trafficking charges in cases it would typically leave to local authorities.

The event that really turned the city against Boudin happened on the final night of 2020, when an allegedly drunken man who was on parole for armed robbery fatally ran down two women in a stolen car. He had been arrested five times between June and December that year for crimes that included burglary, but Boudin didn’t file charges that would have sent him back to prison.

One of the most outspoken proponents for the recall was Brooke Jenkins, who resigned in protest as a homicide prosecutor after Boudin accepted an insanity plea from a man whom she had convicted of murdering his own mother and setting her corpse on fire. Jenkins is among 62 prosecutors who have either left or been fired in the district attorney’s office since Boudin took power.

Boudin pulled out all the stops as he clung to his job. He tried to gaslight residents by pretending crime wasn’t as bad as voters perceived. He blamed courts for shutting down during the pandemic. He blamed cops for not making enough arrests. Voters saw through the desperation.

A woman whose son got hooked on heroin and fentanyl in San Francisco started a group called Mothers Against Drug Deaths, which spent $25,000 in April to erect a billboard in Union Square that has a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge and the caption “Famous the world over for our brains, beauty and, now, dirt-cheap fentanyl.”

Boudin was never beloved by local party officials. The Democratic establishment, including former senator (and district attorney before that) Kamala D. Harris, endorsed a more pragmatic candidate who had been a successful prosecutor in the office.

About six months ago, Boudin attacked San Francisco Mayor London Breed (D) when she deployed more officers to crack down on drugs in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood. The district attorney held a news conference with the head of the public defender’s office to say the mayor should instead use that money for shelters, job training and social services. “We can’t arrest and prosecute our way out of problems that are afflicting the Tenderloin,” Boudin said.

Breed now gets to select Boudin’s replacement.

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