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Why Electing Progressive District Attorneys Is Crucial

July 27, 2022

Now that the campaign to recall Chesa Boudin as the progressive District Attorney of San Francisco has been successful, there’s been a lot of speculation about what that means for criminal legal reform in this country. One thing that is abundantly clear: Our efforts to transform the justice system continue to face strong opposition from all quarters that seek to uphold white supremacy and maintain control.

More than $7.2 million was pumped into the recall efforts to remove Boudin, who became a national symbol for progressive criminal legal reform when he was elected in 2019. As the child of two Weather Underground activists who were both incarcerated when he was 14 months old, Boudin is, like us, a person directly impacted by the system itself. He knew the system from the inside out, and he was someone who the establishment never expected to overcome the cycle of generational trauma, let alone get elected to public office.

During his short tenure, Boudin’s reforms were hugely successful: reducing the San Francisco prison population by 35%, the adult jail population by 37%, and the juvenile jail population by a remarkable 57%. But the recall messaging campaign was also successful at smearing him as being “soft on crime,” despite the reality that homicides remained mostly flat and violent crime actually decreased during his first year in office.

While some crimes, such as burglary and car theft, did rise while he was in office—which overlapped with the COVID-19 pandemic and global economic recession—the narrative that crime is on the rise and that “there is chaos in the streets” is simply not supported by the facts. But that hasn’t and won’t stop pundits and political operatives from repeating it and misleading the American public. Certainly progressive reforms, such as the ones Boudin spearheaded in San Francisco, are not to blame for any perceived crime wave.

The progressive movement failed Boudin by not coming to his defense and countering the misinformation with the truth about the success and importance of these reforms. We are good at funding to win the campaign, but we have not built the infrastructure to defend the win and protect the reforms. There needs to be funding for at least two years beyond the campaign to help solidify these kinds of changes.

When Larry Krasner was elected as the District Attorney of Philadelphia in 2017, one thing he did was lift up the voices of directly impacted people, the formerly incarcerated, and others with lived experience who could speak to his reforms and defend them in the public square. We need the funding to build the infrastructure to do this across the country, at a national level.

Now that the defenders of the status quo have won in San Francisco, we know this is a strategy that they will attempt to replicate across the country. And with a conservative-leaning Supreme Court throwing out gun control and overturning Roe v. Wade, effectively sending these legal cases back to the states, we need progressive District Attorneys who will defend what is right, now more than ever.

Chesa Boudin’s successes in San Francisco—eliminating cash bail and reducing pretrial incarceration—are common sense reforms that can and should be embraced across the country, not feared and reviled like big-money super PAC campaigns would like you to believe. Again, this is a messaging fight, as much as anything, one that we must engage in and win.

As we saw with Boudin, it was one thing to get him elected, it was another thing entirely to keep him in office. We are fighting to undo years of destruction, underinvestment, and mass incarceration. These reforms are the right changes that are needed right now, and we can no longer allow the forces of misinformation and lies to succeed any further. They may have won this battle at the ballot box in San Francisco, but we must continue to fight until the criminal legal system in this country is truly dismantled.

We’re honored to work for an organization that believes the voices of those most impacted by the injustices of the criminal legal system have to lead this charge. JustLeadershipUSA is the only national criminal legal reform organization founded and led by formerly incarcerated individuals. We’ve been directly impacted by this oppressive and racist system, and experienced the injustices and inequalities firsthand. We know that those who are closest to the problems are also closest to the solutions, but often furthest from the power and resources to change things. This only makes us more determined to elevate our voices and organize our communities for greater impact that has a sustainable future.

DeAnna Hoskins is president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, and Ronald Simpson-Bey is executive vice president of JustLeadershipUSA, the only national criminal legal reform organization founded by and led by formerly incarcerated people.

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