A little over a year after winning election to district attorney against an opponent backed by some of the most powerful figures in the state Democratic Party, 40-year-old Chesa Boudin, the Jewish former public defender and now chief prosecutor of San Francisco, spoke to J. about his accomplishments and some of the challenges faced since he came to office.
The son of left-wing radicals who were incarcerated when he was a toddler, Boudin, who went on to earn a Rhodes Scholarship and a law degree from Yale before joining the public defender’s office in San Francisco, has faced criticism since the day he announced his candidacy in January 2019. But after two high-profile tragedies this year, which critics of his progressive policies have laid at his feet, public opposition has intensified, accompanied by a recall effort led by a former mayoral candidate who accuses Boudin of “dismantling the criminal justice system” in the city.
J. interviewed Boudin on Jan. 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Though Boudin is not an observant Jew — he said he grew up mostly secular — in an earlier interview he said Jewish values have “absolutely informed the way” he sees the world. He summarized them as a “commitment to human dignity.”
Boudin will be featured in a free Sherith Israel “Conversation from the Front Line” at 5 p.m. Feb. 24. Information can be found at tinyurl.com/boudin-sherith.
Speaking with J., Boudin noted that he, his communications director Rachel Marshall and his interviewer were all Jewish. He said for himself and his wife, the UCSF brain researcher Valerie Block, Judaism is an “important part of our shared experience and identity.” On Holocaust Remembrance Day Boudin stressed the need to “collectively, not just as a Jewish community but as a world, pause to reflect on some of the most daunting challenges and darkest times that have been recorded in our history.”
Boudin drew a comparison between Holocaust remembrance and “deep-rooted and longstanding problems” within the American criminal justice system, which he links to the country’s racist past and manifestations of racism today.
Boudin ran on a transformational platform, promising not a traditional tough-on-crime approach but a reformist one targeting mass incarceration and unfair criminal justice practices. It’s a vision that has won DA seats in other liberal cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston.
In campaign speeches and public debates, Boudin emphasized the need to tackle entrenched racism, over-incarceration, and a reliance on jails to treat the ills of society (and of San Francisco), from drug addiction to mental illness. He wanted to “make it easier to get help than to get high,” he often said.
The Covid-19 pandemic not only shuttered the city courthouse for months, but also upended the lives of San Franciscans in unprecedented ways.
The year of pandemic “has presented obstacles we never could have imagined,” Boudin said. It has “thrown countless San Franciscans out of work, and out of housing. It’s pushed people to act in desperation, and to record high overdoses from drugs.”
Indeed, last year was the deadliest for drug overdoses in San Francisco’s history, with a 59 percent increase, or 699 total deaths. Astoundingly, three times more people died from drug overdoses than from Covid-19 over the same time period, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Though despair has been evident on the streets of San Francisco, crime figures published by the police department actually showed an overall decline.
Homicides increased slightly by 17 percent (to 48 total), but violent crime, including rape, robbery and aggravated assault, was down 21 percent, according to the San Francisco Police Department Compstat report for December 2020. Property crime fell by about 24 percent, according to the report, but burglaries and auto thefts rose, the latter by 35 percent.
In ticking off a series of accomplishments over the year, Boudin did not cite crime figures, but rather policy changes he said were proof of campaign promises fulfilled. Even, as he said, he never expected “that I would be able to solve all of the deep-rooted and longstanding problems that manifest in our criminal justice system in my first year.”
With support from the mayor and other city officials, San Francisco shuttered County Jail #4, a facility deemed seismically unsafe and rundown. The DA’s office stopped filing gang enhancements, added charges that can increase penalties, which Boudin says exacerbated racial bias. His office ended cash bail, which he said unfairly penalized the poor, replacing it with risk assessments. He stopped charging cases stemming from some “pretextual” traffic stops, where officers use minor traffic violations to stop a vehicle suspected of carrying drugs.
And in November, Boudin made history by becoming the first DA in the modern era to charge a police officer with homicide. Officer Christopher Samayoa, a rookie cop, was charged with manslaughter after he allegedly shot and killed an unarmed carjacking suspect on his fourth day of field training in 2017.
Samayoa pleaded not guilty on Dec. 28. The move by Boudin inflamed tensions with police officers and the union, which has strongly opposed him since the early days of his campaign.
Boudin told J. he had nothing against Samayoa “personally,” but treated the case like any other.
The charge “was one we decided based on the facts and the law after careful analysis,” Boudin said. It “was not an effort to make history. We actually didn’t know at the time we filed it that it had never been done before. This was an effort to do justice and fulfill a campaign promise. The fact that Officer Samayoa was an officer at the time he killed Keita O’Neil did not make it a lawful killing.”
The DA’s office has a “tremendous amount to be proud of” in its first year, Boudin said. Yet he faces strong headwinds, as open drug use and outbursts of property crime continue to roil some San Franciscans who view law enforcement as too lax.
Criticism of Boudin increased sharply after a tragic incident on New Year’s Eve, leading to a flurry of news stories, op-eds and public campaigns, ultimately culminating in a recall effort.
On Dec. 31 a man named Troy McAlister allegedly ran a stoplight in San Francisco’s SoMA neighborhood in a stolen car, striking and killing two pedestrians, 27-year-old Hanako Abe and 60-year-old Elizabeth Platt. Police say McAlister had a gun, and methamphetamine and alcohol in his system.
McAlister had a lengthy rap sheet dating back years and was released from prison after completing a sentence for robbery in April. Since then, he had been arrested several times, including as recently as Dec. 20, according to the S.F. Chronicle, but his arrests were referred to his parole officer, and he was not charged.
Journalists, commentators and some city residents immediately looked to Boudin and his progressive policies after the deadly incident.
A Chronicle headline Jan. 2 announced that McAlister “was free despite several recent arrests.” Mayor London Breed said “the criminal justice system in our city has failed.”
Boudin said the McAlister arrests were referred to parole officers “because we believed there was a greater likelihood of him being held accountable and having the kind of intervention that would protect the public and break this cycle of recidivism,” he told the Chronicle. He added that “clearly, it was a mistake to think parole supervision would be adequate.”
Boudin met with the Abe and Platt families, describing the experience as “heartwrenching.”
Today, Troy McAlister was arraigned on numerous felony charges, including vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated charges for the deaths of Hanako Abe and Elizabeth Platt.
My office and I are distraught over this horrific tragedy.
— Chesa Boudin 博徹思 (@chesaboudin) January 6, 2021
Later in January, criticisms of Boudin continued after Ali Mustafa Hudson, alleged to have killed his mother in Sacramento on Jan. 19, was revealed to have been arrested but not charged in San Francisco weeks earlier, on Dec. 20.
The December incident occurred on a Muni bus. According to the SFPD officer who made the report, the suspect allegedly claimed that a phone that had fallen to the floor was his. When the owner went to pick it up, Hudson slapped it out of her hand, the officer said.
As a robbery, the evidence was flimsy; Boudin said it “was not provable or chargeable.” Hudson was transported to Solano County, where he faced an outstanding misdemeanor warrant, and he was eventually released.
A damning news report in the Chronicle ran on Jan. 26 under the headline: “Man accused of killing mother in Sacramento was arrested weeks before in an S.F. robbery but D.A. Chesa Boudin did not charge him.” The lead photo was not of Hudson, but of Boudin.
While Boudin said he welcomes scrutiny from the press, he said some of the criticisms of him are made in bad faith, or demonstrate ignorance about the law.
“It’s unfortunate that some folks want to exploit tragedies to roll back criminal justice reform,” he said.
“I welcome constructive, honest, critical feedback. That’s what the press and public discourse is supposed to provide, as long as they’re grounded in the reality of the criminal justice system as it exists.”
The recall effort began in January. It is led in part by Richie Greenberg, a former mayoral candidate who started a Change.org petition and is now raising money.
“Mr. Boudin has been in office barely a year, and in his disastrous social experiment of criminal justice ‘reform’ and the so-called restorative justice model, he has instead dismantled the criminal justice system,” the petition says. It received its target number of signatures, 14,999.
Also in January, a wealthy tech investor, Jason McCabe Calacanis, launched a GoFundMe page to raise money to hire an investigative journalist, at a full-time salary of $75,000, to “cover Chesa’s office” exclusively. The GoFundMe, titled “Hold the DA of SF accountable to the people of SF,” had raised nearly $54,000 and was well on its way toward reaching its goal in early February.
It’s unfortunate that some folks want to exploit tragedies to roll back criminal justice reform.
Though he does not “enjoy” it, criticism is “part of the job,” Boudin said, calling it an honor to serve in his role. “And it’s worth even the dishonest attacks from places like Fox News.”
Some “want to use disinformation and misinformation to undermine the legitimacy of a righteous and powerful and growing movement for data-driven policies,” he said. “These attacks are not new, they’re not accurate, and they’re not going to be successful.”
Admittedly, there are days when problems evident on city streets, from drug addiction to untreated mental illness, can seem insurmountable.
“We’re dealing with a tremendous amount of institutional racism and trauma, and people who are dealing with really deep substance dependence and behavioral health issues,” Boudin said. “And we don’t have the tools to adequately address the problems that come across our desk every single day.”
But “the work we do on behalf of people” in the criminal justice system and “on behalf of San Franciscans is worth it,” he added.
In his personal life, the year has also brought new beginnings. At the end of 2019 he married Block, a postdoctoral research fellow at UCSF Medical Center.
Block is Jewish on her father’s side; her ancestors were part of a small group of Jews who settled in Kenya around the turn of the 20th century. Abraham Block was a famous hotelier in Nairobi, considered one of the pioneers of tourism in Kenya.
Sara Yael Hirschhorn, a college friend of Boudin’s at Yale, now a Jewish historian who teaches Israel studies at Northwestern, said when describing Boudin the term “rodef shalom” comes to mind, Hebrew for “pursuer of peace.”
“He clearly had strong leadership potential, and he knew how to galvanize the people around him,” Hirschhorn told J.
She said she wasn’t surprised to see him win elected office, adding: “One day he might be president, for all I know.”
That Vice President Kamala Harris once sat in his seat was not lost on him, Boudin said.
“It’s flattering that someone like Sara would suggest that aspirational office for me,” he added. “But I’ll tell you, this is a big job, and I’m focused on doing it well.”