If the June 7 top-two primary results are any indication, California continues along its merry path of electing and reelecting progressive Democrats to every statewide office no matter what political crises swirl around the state. All the usual suspects — from Gov. Gavin Newsom to U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla — topped the vote tallies. They likely will cruise to victory in the general election.
Yet in perhaps the biggest statewide political story of the year, the most left-wing big city in America has continued its push in a rightward direction. “Right” is a relative term, of course, but San Francisco voters apparently have tired of the social-justice warriors who have controlled key offices there and have been unceremoniously dumping them from office.
In particular, we might now see a closer focus on keeping low-level juvenile offenders out of the justice system, which ends up serving as a breeding ground for a life of crime.
In this month’s city election, voters recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin by a stunning 60 percent to 40 percent margin. In February, San Franciscans recalled three left-wing school board members who were more interested in renaming the city’s schools than reopening them after the pandemic. The message from both elections was resounding.
San Francisco voters will tolerate a lot of blather, but ultimately they want their elected officials to tend to their jobs rather than use their positions to pursue bizarre ideological flights of fancy. Boudin, whose parents were members of the radical Weather Underground, was a caricature of the latter — especially in a city that’s experiencing a disturbing crime wave. He even worked as a translator for Venezuela’s late socialist dictator Hugo Chávez.
Boudin is part of a movement of “progressive prosecutors” who, emboldened by Black Lives Matter protests, claim to pursue justice and not just convictions. I’ve applauded that general idea, given that prosecutors are legally supposed to prioritize the promotion of justice, but that’s not exactly what Boudin and some of these DAs are all about.
Conservatives have also understood that prosecutors often abuse the sentencing-enhancement process to coerce defendants into copping a plea rather than going to court and chancing an outrageously long prison sentence. They also know that police often abuse their authority — and yet DAs rarely prosecute dirty cops, which would create blowback from the police unions.
The conservative group, Right On Crime, has long called for a “cost-effective” criminal justice approach “that incapacitates dangerous offenders and career criminals but which is not used in such a way that makes nonviolent, low-risk offenders a greater risk to the public upon release than before they entered.” There’s nothing wrong with reforming this bureaucratic system or limiting prosecutors’ misuse of, say, the asset-forfeiture process.
But, in reality, such prosecutors often enacted a program of hard-and-fast rules that seemed as unconcerned about justice as anything coming from traditional DAs’ offices. They would never prosecute juveniles as adults — even when teens committed heinous crimes. They stopped sending prosecutors to parole hearings, which meant their offices would rarely oppose the parole of a violent criminal. They opposed the death penalty in every instance. They battled “over-incarceration” by sometimes allowing dangerous criminals back on the street.
National Public Radio got to the heart of the problem in a recent analysis. It interviewed John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Peter Moskos, who argued that these self-style reformers aren’t focusing enough on public safety concerns: “The idea that if we just stop arresting and prosecuting non-violent offenders and everything will get better is a dream world. We haven’t seen that happen anywhere.”
In one notorious San Francisco incident, “a man driving a stolen car slammed into 27-year-old Hanako Abe and 60-year-old Elizabeth Platt as the two women were crossing Second and Mission streets in downtown San Francisco, killing both of them,” KQED reported. The alleged driver had been arrested and released before. That became the focus of a powerful anti-Boudin campaign ad.
Now Boudin’s loss is prompting media analysts to wonder whether the criminal justice reform movement will falter locally and even nationally. If even San Franciscans have had enough, what chance is there for wide-ranging reform in less progressive locales?
“The bitter, expensive recall election has turned into a referendum on some of San Francisco’s most painful and protracted problems, including homelessness, drug addiction and property crime,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “The election has also become a test for a liberal city’s appetite for continuing to pursue criminal justice reform.”
Yet Boudin’s loss could actually be good news for a more thoughtful and genuinely reformist approach to the justice system. There’s no reason that prosecutors can’t do both things at once — promoting a more balanced, justice-oriented system that seeks out alternatives to incarceration when appropriate while also seriously prosecuting violent street thugs.
In particular, we might now see a closer focus on keeping low-level juvenile offenders out of the justice system, which ends up serving as a breeding ground for a life of crime. “In many states, up to 80 percent of the youth who are incarcerated are rearrested within three years of release, and outcomes for youth on community supervision are often not much better,” according to a 2014 report from the Council of State Governments.
Why fight over whether to lock up young offenders for decades or letting them go? Instead, we can look for a middle path of seeking successful diversion programs that keep them out of the system in the first place. That might be an easier sell even for crime-weary San Franciscans now that they cast aside their overly divisive and ideological district attorney, who turned such common-sense ideas into an ideological grudge match.
It’s surprising that, as the Orange County Register opined, San Francisco might lead the way to a “more moderate political consensus.”
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.