Why many outside San Francisco are watching DA recall vote


(NewsNation) — San Francisco’s progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin could be removed from office a little over halfway through his first term as voters cast their ballots in a recall election Tuesday.

Regardless of what voters in the overwhelmingly liberal city ultimately decide, experts say the recall may serve as a warning to other DAs about how far they can go to enact reform-minded policies.

“I think you’re going to see Republicans and Democrats watching, not only San Francisco’s district attorney recall, but also the Los Angeles mayoral race to really see what messaging they should be taking on crime, what worked and really, what didn’t,” said Julia Manchester, a national politics reporter at The Hill.

Boudin, who vowed to reform the criminal justice system and reduce incarceration, faces a recall vote amid mounting criticism that his perceived soft-on-crime approach has emboldened criminals in the city.

Viral videos showing brazen smash-and-grab robberies and violent assaults, including multiple attacks against Asian elders, have helped fuel the perception that San Francisco has become a den of lawlessness.

Supporters of the effort to remove Boudin say the district attorney’s reform-minded approach has gone too far, arguing that his policies often favor criminals over victims and allow repeat offenders to roam free without fear of retribution.

“We are conditioning people to believe they can do whatever they want in San Francisco with no consequences,” Brooke Jenkins, a former prosecutor in Boudin’s office and supporter of the recall, told the Associated Press. “I think San Francisco sees the need for a little bit more balance to social justice and criminal justice issues.”

But others NewsNation spoke to, who are opposed to the recall, said the DA’s changes have been for the better and point to the elimination of cash bail and reduced gang-affiliation charges as meaningful steps toward reducing mass incarceration and racial disparities in the justice system.

Boudin said police often fail to bring strong cases to his office for prosecution. According to data from the DA’s office, less than 5% of the incidents reported to San Francisco Police last year resulted in an arrest.

the prosecutor’s power

The decision to prosecute a case is up to the district attorney’s office, but whether that case is successful often depends on the evidence acquired by law enforcement.

“Ultimately, a district attorney should not be charging a case where they don’t think that a crime occurred or (that they) could proceed with a conviction,” said Erin O’Donnell, a criminal defense attorney and adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law.

Boudin’s office filed charges in nearly 62% of arrests brought by San Francisco police in 2021, up from his 45% filing rate the year prior, according to data from the DA’s office.

Last year’s filing rate is on par with Boudin’s predecessor, who filed charges about 60% of the time between 2016 to 2019, data shows.

But former prosecutors who worked in the current DA’s office have accused him of turning his back on victims by pursuing lower charges in order to promote a political agenda.

Although the percentage of cases filed in 2021 was consistent with years prior, conviction rates fell from 60% in 2019 to 39% in 2021.

Instead, the number of defendants completing diversion programs that are intended to rehabilitate criminals, has increased under Boudin.

O’Donnell, who is against the recall, thinks that’s a good thing. She said it allows offenders to seek meaningful treatment for low-level crimes without ruining their futures.

is crime up?

Since Boudin began his term in January 2020, certain crimes, including homicides, have risen but other violent offenses such as rape and robbery are below pre-pandemic levels.

In 2021, property crimes in San Francisco were up 13% from the year prior with much of the increase attributable to a nearly 40% uptick in car break-ins, according to police data. Despite the uptick, levels of overall property crime were still below totals seen in 2019.

Overall violent crimes increased 1% from 2020 to 2021 but also remain below 2019 levels before Boudin took office, with one exception — the number of homicides in the city went from 41 in 2019 to 56 in 2021.

The mixed data has done little to assuage widespread concerns among voters that crime is rampant. Other public-facing signs of disorder have bolstered the perception that the city is in disarray.

Last year, reported hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) skyrocketed 567% from the year prior — an increase from nine victims in 2020 to 60 victims in 2021, according to police.

A poll commissioned by the San Francisco Standard last month found that 67% of Asian American and Pacific Islander voters were in favor of the recall.

Drug overdose deaths among the city’s highly visible homeless population have also increased, doubling in the first year of the pandemic.

San Franciscans will decide Tuesday whether they think the DA’s approach is working.

If the recall is successful, San Francisco Mayor London Breed will appoint Boudin’s replacement until the term ends in January 2024.

Breed has declined to take a position on the recall.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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