The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The San Francisco district attorney saga set back criminal justice reform

Supporters of a ballot measure to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin wave signs on May 11. (Stephen Lam/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)
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San Francisco voters last Tuesday booted prosecutor Chesa Boudin from their district attorney’s office, ending what some had hailed — and others had derided — as a progressive experiment in criminal justice reform. Unfortunately, Mr. Boudin’s tenure served to discredit rather than advance the cause of more effective and humane approaches to public safety. The lesson of his brief stint is that criminal justice reform must be done carefully — with attention to people’s safety and quality of life — even as reformers seek to improve how the system treats others.

Every American should want the criminal justice system to work better. Those suffering from drug addiction should be treated rather than incarcerated first. Early mistakes should not ruin the rest of a person’s life. Fewer human beings should be warehoused uselessly in prisons on sentences that are too steep for their crimes. Police should no longer be the nation’s default front-line mental health responders. De-escalation should be every officer’s routine first response. Authorities should not use efforts to police petty crime and quality-of-life matters as cover to harass minority Americans. There would be less crime if the government better addressed root causes — poverty, poor civic services, substandard education and a lack of decent, affordable housing.

But there is plenty of room to debate how to act on these principles. Mr. Boudin failed to address the fentanyl trade in his city, even as addiction deaths surged and people died on sidewalks. Burglaries climbed 45 percent during his tenure. Businesses closed rather than face petty crime, incentivized by the fact that the city nearly stopped arresting people for offenses such as shoplifting. Mr. Boudin oversaw an exodus of prosecutors from his office, some of whom left because they say they were pressured to relax charges on major crimes.

Mr. Boudin argues that San Francisco police, not his district attorney’s office, are the real culprits, failing to make arrests. Yet, responded San Francisco writer Nellie Bowles in a Wednesday article in the Atlantic, “the D.A. said from the beginning that he would not prioritize the prosecution of lower-level offenses. Police officers generally don’t arrest people they know the D.A. won’t charge.” And voters’ blowout rejection of Mr. Boudin shows that the outgoing district attorney failed to bring along the public, particularly after people he had let off easy went on to commit horrific crimes. In short, San Francisco became a worse place in which to live, and Mr. Boudin did not assure residents that his policies would make it better.

As longtime advocates for criminal justice reform, we are as frustrated as anyone at the seemingly slow pace of change in the face of police misconduct, racial disparities in the justice system and worsening mental health and addiction crises that call for innovative public safety solutions. It was a low moment when Senate negotiators failed to embrace a criminal justice reform bill after George Floyd’s murder. These considerations make it only more imperative that, when the public entrusts reformers with their safety, they show that a fairer justice system can make their communities more secure and more attractive — not the opposite.