What Democrats Understand About Crime That Chesa Boudin Did Not

“It’s not about my tenure in office. It’s about police accountability,” San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said four months ago about his upcoming recall election. He was wrong. On June 7, 60 percent of the overwhelmingly Democratic San Francisco electorate voted Boudin out of office midway through his term.

Whether or not Boudin’s defeat is a bellwether for other progressive district attorneys or the cause of criminal justice reform remains to be seen. As the down-ballot elections expert Daniel Nichanian of Bolts noted, while San Francisco Democrats were dumping Boudin, Des Moines Democrats chose a progressive reformer to be their nominee for county prosecutor, one who is a strong favorite for the general election.

Nevertheless, Boudin’s demise is a cautionary tale. Progressives should learn from his mistakes.

First, Boudin never appreciated that the mandate from his 2019 electoral victory was thin. He barely survived the four-way race even with help from San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system, receiving just 35.6 percent of the first-choice vote. Only when two of Boudin’s competitors—both of whom ran to his right—were eliminated did he eke out a 50.2 percent victory. Nevertheless, Boudin proceeded as if he had a mandate to implement a controversial agenda, from eliminating cash bail to charging immigrant drug dealers with misdemeanors instead of felonies so they are not at risk of deportation.

Second, Boudin and his defenders wrongly believed that the power of data would overcome the power of anecdote. Arguing that Boudin’s policies have not fueled a crime outbreak, Miriam Pawel noted in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that “overall crime—and violent crime—has decreased from 2019 to 2022. Homicide increased from a historic low, but less steeply than in nearby jurisdictions with traditional law-and-order prosecutors.” But that wasn’t game, set, match. Aggregate data can skip past concerning trouble spots.

Boudin’s critics claim that thieves have become stunningly brazen because they no longer fear getting arrested, let alone being prosecuted or jailed. The rate of prosecution for misdemeanor petty theft cases presented to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office by police dropped from 70 percent in 2019 to 44 percent in 2020. Should that matter if property crime is down overall? Here’s the problem. As SFGATE reported, “Many property crimes in the city go unreported, making it difficult to gauge the level of decline. For retail theft specifically—classified as larceny theft in the city data, a category that typically makes up more than half of the city’s total reported incidents—many stores have said it is not worth reporting thefts to police.” So, when retail store owners loudly complained about rampant shoplifting and Boudin critics spread viral videos of store thefts in broad daylight, they fed a perception of lawlessness that the data could not satisfactorily debunk.

Boudin’s approach to drug dealers also produced a strong reaction that aggregate data could not defuse. The San Francisco Standard reported that “Boudin’s office secured just three total convictions for ‘possession with intent to sell’ drugs in 2021: two for methamphetamine and one for a case including heroin and cocaine. By comparison, Boudin’s predecessor, George Gascón, oversaw over 90 drug-dealing convictions by the DA’s Office in 2018.” Such a policy left Boudin vulnerable to charges that he is responsible for severe drug-related crimes and a surge of fatal fentanyl overdoses, nearly 500 last year.

Boudin defended his treatment of immigrant drug dealers in part by arguing that he was being sensitive to the plight of Honduran victims of human trafficking. But Nima Rahimi, a California Democratic Party Executive Board member, countered in a SFGATE op-ed, “A former San Francisco prosecutor and current state deputy attorney general said he did not find a single case of a dealer being a victim of trafficking … Instead, we read about dealers building mansions back in Honduras, and the public continues to see daily deaths by fentanyl overdose, including the recent case of a 14-year-old girl.”

Third, Boudin deflected blame toward the police department instead of accepting criticism and adjusting accordingly. “A recall, or replacing me with another DA, is irrelevant when police are only arresting less than 3 percent of people in reported thefts,” Boudin pleaded to The Intercept. But crime-concerned voters don’t want the district attorney feuding with police; they want to see the district attorney working with police. That may be hard for vehement critics of the police to accept. Of course, district attorneys need to have the independence to investigate and prosecute police misconduct and make their best determinations about what crimes merit prosecution. But the plain fact is that Boudin went to war with the police in one of the most progressive cities in America, and the police won.

“California voters send a stark message to Democrats on crime and homelessness,” read the headline on CNN.com, referring to both the San Francisco recall election and Los Angeles mayoral election results. But that’s not quite right. In Los Angeles, the right-leaning businessman Rick Caruso advanced to a runoff, leading the pack in partial returns with 42 percent of the vote. But the number of voters who picked candidates to Caruso’s left—runoff opponent Representative Karen Bass plus the next three runners-up—adds up to 52 percent. Moreover, Bass, who was in contention to be Joe Biden’s running mate, isn’t even running on a defund-the-police platform. As the CNN.com article notes, Bass “pledged to restore the Los Angeles Police Department to its authorized force of 9,700 officers, by hiring more civilians to free up 250 officers to return to street patrols.” She just isn’t overpromising like Caruso, who proposes hiring 1,500 new officers but hasn’t explained how he would pay for them.

The message that San Francisco—where Democrats outnumber Republicans nine to one—sent Democrats is the same one the party got from New York City’s Eric Adams and Seattle’s Bruce Harrell. They won mayoral races by supporting criminal justice reform and voicing determination to fight crime. Minneapolis voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have replaced its police department with a hazily defined Department of Public Safety and reelected Democratic Mayor Jacob Frey, who opposed the initiative. Back in 2020, Democratic presidential primary voters nominated the chief author of the 1994 crime bill, Joe Biden, after he weathered numerous attacks regarding its punitive provisions.

Most Democratic politicians already know that most voters believe we can improve the criminal justice system without shortchanging the fight against crime. Boudin ignored the recent history from other cities and didn’t listen to what San Franciscans were telling him throughout his now-truncated tenure. Democrats already have the message. It’s Boudin who refused to hear it.

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