The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why prosecutorial reform will outlive Chesa Boudin’s recall

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin addresses supporters June 7. (Noah Berger/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Dead on arrival.

That’s the prognosis that has quickly formed around the movement of reform prosecutors after San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled last week. Pundits and political strategists have leaped to declare that Boudin’s fate portends defeat for reform-minded prosecutors nationwide — and that Democrats have no choice but to get tougher on crime if they want to avert disastrous midterm elections.

But the loss of one reformer — in an election that saw more than 25 percent turnout and was fueled by a $7 million misinformation campaign — is hardly a sign that Democrats need to revert to 1990s-era posturing on crime. True, they must hear and address voters’ very real fears if they’re going to win elections. But that doesn’t mean they have to promote incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution for society’s problems. On the contrary, the case for criminal justice reform remains strong — and elections last week and in recent years show that Americans nationwide are increasingly receptive to it.

So how do we explain what happened in San Francisco? Supporters of Boudin’s recall weaponized mounting public perception that crime in that city is out of control. But according to research by the San Francisco Chronicle, violent crime actually declined during the pandemic and is now at its lowest rate in nearly four decades. And though homicide rates have risen in San Francisco and nationwide in recent years, it hardly makes sense to blame that spike on left-wing governance. According to an analysis by the public policy think tank Third Way, murder rates in 2019 and 2020 were significantly higher in red states than in blue ones.

The Boudin backlash, then, isn’t just about rising crime. As criminal justice strategist Chloe Cockburn recently wrote in her Just Impact column, “DA Boudin’s loss is more a story of a bitter local political fight that spiraled out of control — enabled by a dangerously low-bar for recall efforts, magnified by a multi-year misinformation campaign, and deftly exploited by national special interest groups looking to gin up fear of crime.” And in a recent piece for Slate, John Pfaff made the case that the loss can also be ascribed in part to Boudin’s struggles as a politician — from some unfortunate gaffes to potential voter skepticism about his outsider status.

Editorial Board

counterpointThe San Francisco district attorney saga set back criminal justice reform

Despite Boudin’s political challenges, his focus on decarceration remains grounded in facts: Studies show that putting more people behind bars does not make us safer. In fact, as Miriam Aroni Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, writes, locking up more people for longer periods can increase the likelihood of recidivism, as lengthy sentences make it harder for released prisoners to find the jobs, housing and social networks they need to build stable lives. As she puts it, “We cannot make our communities safer by simply waiting and punitively responding to crimes while failing to invest in prevention and proactive interventions.”

Counter to what last Tuesday’s election results might initially suggest, Americans are increasingly understanding this reality — and electing representatives who understand it, too. For proof, look no further than the rest of California. The same night Boudin was recalled, Attorney General Rob Bonta — whose appointment was praised by the Prosecutors Alliance of California, a group consisting of California’s pro-reform prosecutors — handily won the primary with more than 54 percent of the vote. (Meanwhile, anti-reform candidate Anne Marie Schubert, who was perhaps Bonta’s most plausible general-election threat, was defeated by 47 percentage points and failed to make the top two in the jungle primary.) Progressive district attorneys also saw victories in neighboring Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Reformist prosecutors are flourishing beyond California. Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner — often heralded as the face of the movement — easily won reelection last year. Over the past few years, the list of prominent reelection victories has included Kim Foxx in Chicago, Marilyn Mosby in Baltimore, Kimberly M. Gardner in St. Louis, Mark Dupree in Kansas City, Kan., and Andrew Warren in Tampa. And the movement isn’t limited to big cities: Just Tuesday, Democrats in Iowa’s Polk County elected progressive Kimberly Graham by more than 15 points. Should these success stories be overshadowed by one highly visible loss?

Democrats can build on these victories by presenting a new vision for a public safety program that features dispatching health-care first responders instead of police after nonviolent emergency calls — an approach that has already shown promise in New York. Yes, something needs to be done about homelessness in California. Instead of criminalizing people for poverty or mental health problems, progressives can call for permanent supportive housing and ultimately enshrine housing as a fundamental human right. And because rising crime rates can be attributed in large part to gun violence, progressives can push for universal background checks, a national gun sale database, and an assault weapons ban — all of which are extraordinarily popular.

All Americans want safety — but they also want justice, prosperity and a dignified way of life. It’s time for an approach to crime that acknowledges that all these outcomes are intertwined.