Skip to content

A Work in Progress

An interview with San Francisco district attorney-elect Chesa Boudin

Last month Chesa Boudin, a thirty-nine-year-old public defender, narrowly won an election to become the next district attorney of San Francisco. Boudin ran as a progressive outsider, promising to overhaul a criminal justice system that has locked up too many black and brown people. By now, the victories of candidates like Boudin are no longer a shock. Larry Krasner, another public defender who had never prosecuted a case, was elected district attorney of Philadelphia in 2017. Progressive prosecutors have swept into office in St. Louis, Boston, and Chicago, and one came within fifty-five votes of capturing a New York City office representing a county of two million people.

America still incarcerates, by far, more people than any other nation on earth. Tough-on-crime prosecutors, who wield inordinate power in our criminal justice system, have been blamed for fueling that boom. Boudin is more familiar with the prison system than most of his progressive colleagues: his mother and father, former members of the Weather Underground, were arrested for murder in their role as getaway drivers in a notorious New York bank robbery. They went to prison when he was a small child. He was raised in Chicago by Bill Ayers, the former leader of the Weather Underground.

Boudin would go on to be a Rhodes Scholar, work as a translator for the Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, and clerk for a couple of judges before becoming a deputy public defender in San Francisco. His insurgent DA campaign attracted high profile supporters, including Bernie Sanders and the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. His primary opponent was the interim DA, Suzy Loftus, who boasted the backing of much of the California political establishment: Governor Gavin Newsom and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, who launched her political career from the same office. The local police union spent more than $650,000 campaigning against Boudin, calling him the “#1 choice of criminals and gang members!”

America still incarcerates, by far, more people than any other nation on earth.

Still, Boudin won, even after San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting election system showed him trailing on election night. The incoming DA, who has promised to end cash bail and set up a conviction review unit, among many other reforms, spoke with The Baffler about the tall order ahead. This conversation has been condensed for clarity and concision.

Ross Barkan: How progressive can prosecution be, given the constraints of the office and the incentives and pressures to lock people up?

Chesa Boudin: You’ve put your finger on what is a central challenge of the decarceral prosecution movement, and more broadly what is a central challenge of the broad-based national movement to rethink, revamp, and reimagine our approach to public safety. We have for many decades narrowly relied on incarceration, for increasingly lengthy periods of time, as a singular solution to a tremendously diverse and complex array of social problems. It has not worked. It is devastatingly expensive and dehumanizing.

We are in the process of trying to implement now at a high level across the country [policies] that are more effective at preventing crime, that are more humane in their response to trauma that victims have suffered and more effective at reducing recidivism rates for people who are being released from custody or being re-assimilated into their communities after interaction with law enforcement.

RB: Kamala Harris, who once held the job you’re about to have, ran for president and dropped out. She was attacked for being a former prosecutor. You would hear criticisms like “Kamala is a cop,” that she put many people of color behind bars. What is your reaction to that, as someone who is a part of this progressive movement but is now taking over an office that will have to put people behind bars?

CB: The substance of those criticisms of Kamala Harris were not just that she had been a prosecutor but some of the particular policies she had celebrated. And I think also, frankly, in response to perceived inconsistencies between what she did in office as district attorney and attorney general and then how she was framing that record during her campaign.

Part of it was the criticism from the left of the institution of the district attorney’ office, of the attorney general’s office, of law enforcement writ large but part of it, I think, more specifically—the reason that meme caught on—were some legitimate criticisms of her record which, rather than own it, she tried to reframe in ways that were not acceptable to her critics. There was a lot in her record—from defending the death penalty as attorney general, to her efforts to really expand the use of preventative detention with money bail rather than be a bail reformer when she was in a position to do so, to her defense of some really egregious misconduct by local prosecutors while she was in the AG’s office, to the truancy courts, to her cooperation with ICE.

These were issues that, rightly or wrongly, were the way her critics remembered her legacy in law enforcement, and so her attempts to paint a picture of herself as a reformer, which she also was in many ways, were ultimately unsuccessful. She did not get as much credit, I think, in this period as she deserved for her courageous stand against the death penalty when she was elected as district attorney. As is always the case, her record is a mixed one . . .  it’s hard to control or predict what will be our signature issues or legacy. We don’t control that. For me, as I approach this job, I want to remember what my values are. . . .

RB: I want to ask you about violent crime. There’s always the talk of ending the criminalization of poverty and nonviolent offenses. But many of our prisons are filled with people who have been accused of committing violent offenses. Decarceration in the United States probably won’t be comparable to that of other countries unless fewer of these people go to prison. Do you think too many people who have been accused of violent crimes are behind bars?

CB: I think the rhetoric around violent versus nonviolent crime is problematic . . . there are some crimes in California, for example, which are legally defined as nonviolent but which involve acts of violence and vice versa and there are crimes that are defined as violent which do not involve acts of violence against a person yet are defined by violence. This dichotomy and rhetoric is problematic. But to get to the heart of your question, I think what’s important to me is to prioritize resources and law enforcement on cases where the stakes are the highest for the victims who have been [harmed] and for the people who have been accused and that means that cases where someone was gravely injured or killed, or sexual assaults. . . . Those kinds of cases should be a priority because of how the consequences are for all parties.

It does not mean prison should be, or lengthy prison sentences should be, the primary response. I think what is the primary response depends very much on the particular facts of cases, the victims’ wants and needs, and that’s why I’ve committed to expanding restorative justice as an option that is available for victims who choose to pursue it.

RB: Do you support the idea of lifetime sentencing? Are there people who should go to prison for the rest of their lives? Do you support the limitations other countries have put in place on the amount of time anyone can serve in prison?

“I also learned that what we do in response to crime is woefully inadequate in addressing the real needs of crime victims and that it is an abject failure when it comes to rehabilitation.”

CB: I don’t support life without the possibility of parole. I think we all know we are very different people, even ten or fifteen years ago, in significant ways and we also know people who commit violent crime [can be] victims of serious trauma and most of them are also at an age where they are still having their brains develop and are still changing and growing as people, biologically and empirically. . . . 

RB: How did growing up with two parents in prison inform your views on the criminal justice system?

CB: It was a pretty profound life experience for me. It shaped in countless ways my experience, my perspective, my relationships. First and foremost, it was traumatic for me as a child to lose my parents. It made me feel guilty, stigma, anger. It had a wide array of developmental implications for me. It slowed down my development in school and socially. I was lucky to have a tremendous amount of support in overcoming those challenges. I learned most kids who I got to know in prison didn’t have a lot of support.

I also learned that what we do in response to crime is woefully inadequate in addressing the real needs of crime victims and that it is an abject failure when it comes to rehabilitation. I personally experienced some of the third-party costs of our current approach. So it led me from a very early age to try to think of and move towards alternative approaches to dealing with crime.