On Chesa Boudin’s Recall, Criminal Justice Reform, and the Power of Perception

Americans of every political stripe still want criminals to be held accountable. They just want that accountability to be exercised in a more just, humane, and impartial manner than it has in decades past.

That’s the key takeaway from San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s failed attempt to hold onto his post as the city’s top prosecutor. This past Tuesday, San Franciscans voted to recall Boudin after a months-long campaign that exposed divisions among Democratic voters, many of whom remain supportive of progressive criminal justice reforms but balk at the notion that community safety must take a back seat to the pursuit of those reforms.

Boudin’s reputation as a soft-on-crime, far-left prosecutor has haunted him for quite some time. Between viral videos of brazen retail thefts, widespread criticism of his alleged mishandling of anti-Asian hate crimes, and reports of open-air drug markets operating in plain sight, Boudin has had to spend the better part of the past two years defending his record as the city’s top prosecutor and repeatedly reassuring residents that he does indeed take their concerns seriously.

Clearly, his efforts didn’t have their intended effect.

On the other side of the debate, Boudin’s supporters have long insisted that his reputation is undeserved, and that San Francisco’s image as a haven for criminals and drugs users is a manufactured right-wing narrative. And they may well have a point.

The genesis of San Francisco’s lawless image predated Boudin’s ascension to district attorney. Drug use was already a growing problem before he entered office in 2019, and the rise in the city’s homicide rate is by no means a problem unique to San Francisco. On the contrary, between 2019 and 2020, homicide rates increased dramatically all across the nation, indicating that the problem isn’t one of Boudin’s making.

But in politics, perception almost always matters more than reality, and it is in the response to the perception of San Francisco as an unsafe city where we find the real story behind Boudin’s recall.

There’s no denying that the criminal justice reform movement has benefitted from a massive shift in momentum over the last couple of decades. Americans across the ideological spectrum have been surprisingly receptive to pro-reform arguments of both the practical and ethical varieties — and that is no less true in San Francisco than it is anywhere else in the country.

In a recent poll of likely voters conducted by the San Francisco Examiner, 85% of respondents said that they support “expanding mental health treatment and stopping the use of jail as a mental health facility.” Asked whether they support “sending low-level criminals to diversion programs instead of jail,”68% said yes. And 50% of all respondents also said they supported the elimination of cash bail, with just 31% opposed. Boudin ditched the cash bail system in January of 2020.

If these numbers seem to contradict the narrative that San Franciscans have had a very sudden and very massive change of heart on criminal justice reform, that’s because that narrative is objectively false. Boudin wasn’t kicked out of office for being too progressive; he was kicked out for the simple reason that residents don’t feel safe.

Therein lies the biggest threat to progressive reformers like Boudin. On the broader topic of reform, Americans are — at least in the abstract — very supportive of efforts to make the criminal justice system more humane, more effective, less punitive, and less biased. That being said, no American in their right mind will ever settle for a system that prioritizes the collective welfare of criminal offenders over the safety of their own families and friends.

In that respect, the recall of Chesa Boudin was about establishing boundaries. It was about a group of citizens who wanted to make clear that while they do indeed support the kinds of reforms that progressives like Boudin have championed, they will forfeit neither their own safety, nor the safety of their loved ones, for the sake of instituting those reforms.

Progressive reformers must take note of this. They must not make the same mistakes Boudin made. The pursuit of criminal justice reform is both noble and necessary, but it can’t come at the expense of a community’s sense of security, lest that community turns against the movement and brings reformers’ efforts to a grinding halt.

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