SAN FRANCISCO— “While we are disappointed District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled, the ACLU of Northern California remains committed to advocating for public safety policies that are consistent with the values of civil liberties and civil rights,” said Abdi Soltani, executive director. “We insist that the next San Francisco district attorney pursue reform, reduce incarceration, hold police accountable when they break the law, and root out racial bias in the criminal justice system.”
To defend the policy gains of recent years from the next phase of attack, and to advance further reforms, ACLU NorCal and San Francisco Rising, along with the Coalition on Homelessness, Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth, SEIU 1021, Smart Justice California and Treatment on Demand Coalition are convening the San Francisco District Attorney Accountability Alliance, which brings together community, civil rights, legal, labor, and other organizations to hold the San Francisco district attorney—whoever occupies the office—accountable for pursuing core goals of justice and public safety.
The alliance builds on decades of work by participating organizations and previous San Francisco district attorneys to reshape the DA’s office into an advocate of reform, rather than a force for mass incarceration. Alliance members will work with—and press—the district attorney to uphold public safety; maintain and advance criminal justice reforms that reduce incarceration and racial bias; hold police accountable when they break the law; and focus on rehabilitation and treatment, victims’ services, and long-neglected priorities such as protecting workers’ rights.
“San Franciscans deserve a district attorney committed to addressing the root causes of crime and working toward real pathways to public safety,” said Emily Lee, director of San Francisco Rising. “This alliance will work to ensure that the DA’s office does not just revert to harsh crime policies that do not make our communities safer, but rather is a champion for real justice and for community members.”
Chesa Boudin was fighting an uphill battle from the start.
Reeling from the disruption caused by the pandemic and anxious about public safety, voters wanted someone to hold responsible. The police union and its wealthy allies seized the opportunity to exploit people’s fears, distort Chesa Boudin’s record, and make him the scapegoat for every social ill in San Francisco, including crime, homelessness, and the overdose crisis.
Although some categories of crime also increased in communities where district attorneys routinely seek jail time for most offenses, those DAs faced much less public scrutiny and blame. By contrast, the recall campaign’s false narrative that Chesa Boudin’s policies led to a lawless and uniquely dangerous San Francisco was fueled by more than $7 million in donations and took on a life of its own in the media and popular imagination. It would have been difficult for anyone in his position to prevail under such daunting circumstances.
His defeat, however, is an aberration in San Francisco, which has a long history of electing district attorneys who took successive steps to support criminal justice reform and sought alternatives to incarceration, including Terence Hallinan, Kamala Harris, and George Gascón.
It would be a mistake to read too much into the election outcome.
The recall vote was not a repudiation of criminal justice reform, nor was it a referendum on the national progressive prosecutor movement, which continues to gain momentum. In fact, in the past two years progressive district attorneys—including Kim Foxx in Cook County, Ill.; Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Pa.; and Satana Deberry in Durham, N.C.—handily defeated opponents who promised to turn back the clock on reform. Unlike those incumbents and Gov. Gavin Newsom in the 2021 gubernatorial recall, Chesa Boudin did not face a challenger. Instead, he was running against voter frustration and disinformation.
Across the country, incumbent progressive district attorneys and progressive candidates are on the ballot this year in competitive races, including in Maricopa County, Ariz.; Shelby County, Tenn.; and elsewhere in California. The ACLU will continue to push for progressive prosecutors in all 50 states.
While the troubling nationwide increase in gun violence since the pandemic began has caused some backlash, polling has found strong public support for alternatives to incarceration, prosecuting police officers when they break the law, eliminating racial bias from our legal system, and investing in mental health care and substance use treatment. For example, in a May San Francisco Examiner poll of likely voters, 85 percent of respondents favored “expanding mental health treatment and stopping the use of jail as a mental health facility” and 68 percent supported diversion programs for “low-level criminals” rather than jail. Nearly half of respondents approved of ending misdemeanor prosecutions and focusing instead on serious and violent felonies.
District attorneys should embrace solutions that focus on rehabilitation and treatment, as Chesa Boudin did, but the DA alone is not responsible for developing programs to combat poverty and addiction. Without access to affordable housing, mental health counseling, substance use treatment, and other services that address the root causes of crime, people who are vulnerable and struggling will continue to end up in the criminal justice system.
The past two and a half years have been challenging, and we acknowledge people are frustrated and angry, but we know filling the jails won’t make San Francisco any safer.
The next district attorney should not give in to demands to reinstate the discriminatory policies that led to mass incarceration and ruined countless lives. ACLU NorCal and our partners have formed the San Francisco District Attorney Accountability Alliance to ensure that they don’t.