Op-Ed: If criminal justice reform can’t survive in San Francisco, can it survive anywhere?

On its face, the effort to recall San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin is a debate over how a relatively small, atypical city battles crime, a philosophical dispute over how often to lock up offenders and the relative success of efforts to divert nonviolent criminals into treatment programs that keep them out of jail.

In reality, the recall is a battle over facts versus feelings, a case study in the power of millionaires to set a political agenda, a lesson on the limits of enacting reform through progressive prosecutors and the difficulty of changing the status quo.

That’s why the June 7 referendum on Boudin holds significance far beyond the 47 square miles of San Francisco, where violent crime rates are near historic lows, viral videos of smash-and-grabs and the twin crises of homelessness and drug deaths notwithstanding.

Since his upset victory, Boudin has made the establishment uneasy: Yale-educated public defender, son of imprisoned Weather Underground leaders, relative newcomer and political novice in a city where politics is a blood sport and people proudly trace their local lineage back generations. He emerged from obscurity in 2019 to campaign on a detailed platform that promised to upend a system that disproportionately prosecutes black and brown people.

As Democrats across the country face voters’ fears about rising crime rates, many have retreated from reforms — including Los Angeles Dist. Atty. George Gascón, who faces a likely recall himself later this year. Boudin has instead implemented the ideas that got him elected: Jail as a last resort. No cash bail or gang enhancements. Not prosecuting juveniles as adults. Charges against police who use excessive force. Increased victim services. Review of lengthy sentences handed down under obsolete laws during the war on drugs. Charges against employers for wage theft.

Boudin’s policies have won him newspaper endorsements, but he faces an uphill battle in the recall election. His core mission — to rethink crime and punishment — is a jolt to the status quo at an already fragile moment. The rush to blame him for myriad long-standing ills has resonated amid the frustrations and anger at all the life-altering changes of the last two years. Tragedies and mistakes are easy to exploit, especially in the wake of a pandemic that has exacerbated the city’s glaring inequality, upset its economic base of tourism and tech, and heightened fears of crime.

His agenda does not lend itself to sound bites, while the reverse is true for his opponents. Allowed to collect donations in unlimited amounts, they have spent millions, first to pay signature gatherers to get the recall on the ballot and now on a television advertising blitz.

The names on the five- and six-figure contributions on file with city and state agencies — a who’s who of tech, finance and real estate moguls — signal the extent to which those accustomed to exerting influence in the city view Boudin’s agenda as a threat. Executives with Blockchain, Lyft, Y Combinator, Grove Capital, Twin Tree Ventures, Route One Investment, Prime Finance, Initialized Capital. The three largest contributors have been the California Assn. of Realtors, Shorenstein Realty and Republican billionaire William Oberndorf.

Boudin, whose parents spent decades in prison for their role as getaway drivers in a 1981 robbery that ended with three shot dead, is an easy figure to caricature and a convenient target in a city grappling with visible, intractable problems — spreading homeless encampments, record drug overdose deaths, increased burglaries, gun violence and car break-ins.

The recall attempt also illustrates a lesson with national ramifications about the limits of relying solely on reform prosecutors to enact change.

District attorneys have enormous power; they alone decide what charges to file. That unchecked power has ripple effects in a system where most cases never go to trial. If prosecutors over-charge, they have more leverage to get plea bargains. If they seek diversion, fewer people end up behind bars. If they prosecute police officers, that conduct becomes subject to public scrutiny.

But a district attorney trying to change the country’s reliance on incarceration has little or no control over either the key drivers of the problem or the infrastructure that could help solve it. City, county and state officials determine housing policy, drug and mental health treatment options — all the ancillary services needed to reshape a world where the county jail is often the largest provider of drug and mental health counseling and the largest homeless shelter. In many ways, the recall is a proxy battle for how a liberal city deals with poverty.

Boudin was not naïve about the challenges, both internal and external.

“In many ways, getting here tonight was the easy part,” he warned amid the cheers the night of his victory party. “What comes next is essential …. We have our work cut out for us. This is not going to be easy.”

But he reckoned without a pandemic that shut down the city and transformed patterns of crime. He could not have anticipated the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in a city almost one-third Asian. He expected to have four years, which might be just enough time to show that his policies could reduce recidivism rates, one of the clearest measures of criminal justice success.

Nor do facts carry weight the way they once did. It is not only the far right that has embraced the idea that truth is what you think it is, that facts are what you experience. Recall supporters mock data that shows that crime is down; they post photos of broken car windows and ask, are you going to believe statistics, or your own eyes? Boudin, whose crusade is proving that locking up more people does not make the rest of us safer, makes an attractive target.

Here are some facts.

According to FBI and San Francisco police statistics, 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.

The jail population in San Francisco dropped by about 40% since Boudin took office, a decrease spurred by the urgency of COVID-19 but maintained as the pandemic subsided.

Boudin has charged crimes presented by police — who are making arrests in only about 8% of the crimes reported — at roughly the same levels as his predecessor, but he has sent more cases to diversion courts that allow offenders to avoid criminal prosecution if they successfully complete programs.

Those are nuanced messages to impart amid a blizzard of television ads that blame the city’s ills on a wide-eyed radical who lets dangerous criminals roam the streets. Crimes make headlines; success stories are less well-known, and perhaps of less import to those pouring millions of dollars into the recall. A man wrongfully convicted of murder and freed after 32 years was front-page news. But not the 58 San Franciscans, serving lengthy prison sentences they would not receive today, resentenced and sent home with reentry plans and regular visits from a social worker. (Only two have been rearrested, according to the D.A.’s office.)

Like much of the country, San Francisco is struggling to find a post-pandemic equilibrium, complicated by its reliance on tourism that has dried up and tech companies that have gone remote. Two-thirds of the workers have not returned to offices. San Francisco International Airport, once one of the busiest in the country, has regained barely half its pre-pandemic volume. The median sale price for a home was $1.6 million in April, while the city spent millions on a tent village for the homeless that has filled United Nations plaza in the shadow of City Hall.

If Boudin’s grassroots campaign to keep his job beats the odds, he will have a reprieve of 18 months to make his case before the next election, and a bully pulpit to leverage the notoriety of San Francisco for national reform.

If the status quo triumphs, his enemies will have to find a new scapegoat for the anguishes of a divided city in the throes of reinvention.

Miriam Pawel is the author, most recently, of “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation.”