San Francisco Elects Chesa Boudin As New District Attorney
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To San Francisco now, where voters have recently elected a progressive lawyer and public defender to be the city's new top prosecutor. Chesa Boudin narrowly won the district attorney's race on a platform of radically overhauling how that office handles crime and punishment. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, Boudin's family's story of crime and incarceration shapes how he views his work ahead.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: San Francisco just elected a district attorney who has never prosecuted a case and who certainly doesn't sound very much like a prosecutor.
CHESA BOUDIN: The status quo tough-on-crime policies of the '90s and 2000s are not working and are not popular. And it provides me with hope about the possibilities for San Francisco and this whole country in terms of moving away from our dependence on prisons and jails to solve social problems.
WESTERVELT: Thirty-nine-year-old Chesa Boudin joins a wave of progressive DAs elected in big cities, including Philadelphia, St. Louis and Boston. They've vowed to repair a broken justice system they say is built on economic and racial inequality and where too many mentally ill and substance-addicted are warehoused behind bars, not treated. Boudin has pledged to do his part to end mass incarceration starting with bail, which he says discriminates against the poor and minorities. A measure to abolish cash bail across California will appear on the 2020 election ballot, but Boudin isn't waiting around. He says his first act will be to tell his prosecutors never to ask for money bail.
BOUDIN: Because we shouldn't be putting a price tag on freedom because we shouldn't be determining incarceration based on wealth, and it's what I intend to implement as policy on day one.
WESTERVELT: Boudin also wants to radically deemphasize prosecution of misdemeanors and create a wrongful conviction unit to review excessive sentences. And he promises to launch what could become the nation's largest experiment in restorative justice. That's a process of face-to-face reconciliation between victim and perpetrator through a mediated dialogue that aims to have the offender repair harm. Boudin's predecessor had a restorative pilot project for low-level crimes and juvenile offenders. Boudin wants to dramatically expand that as a potential option in lieu of normal penalties such as jail time.
BOUDIN: I want to give every victim of every crime in San Francisco the right to participate in restorative justice if they choose to.
WESTERVELT: For all crimes including, potentially, rape, murder, kidnapping?
BOUDIN: I'd like to give victims that choice in every case. And it's going to take time, and it's going to take work. And we're going to have to see how many victims want to engage in the process. Some won't, but this is about putting victims first.
WESTERVELT: But it will take a lot of buy-in from police and scores of city and state agencies, as well as money, to enact his progressive agenda. And many of these ideas are strongly opposed by law enforcement, especially the unions. In the campaign, the police union here spent nearly $700,000 criticizing Boudin as, quote, "the No. 1 choice of criminals and gang members." In a statement after his win, the union warned that his policies will decimate public safety.
Boudin's reformist views are shaped by his personal story. Like more than half of all Americans, he has an immediate family member behind bars. His parents were self-described revolutionaries with the radical leftist Weather Underground. In 1981, when Boudin was in diapers, his parents, who are white, dropped him off with a babysitter and went to take part in a Brinks armored car robbery at a mall with members of the Black Liberation Army or BLA.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Good evening. Echoes of the violent, radical underground of the 1960s rolled over the New York suburb of Nanuet today in the botched ambush of an armored car that left one guard and two policemen dead.
WESTERVELT: Boudin's parents were driving the getaway U-Haul truck with 1.6 million in stolen cash and members of the BLA in the back when police pulled the van over at a roadblock.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: As soon as they opened up the door to the U-Haul, the shots just started being fired. I saw a policeman fall.
WESTERVELT: Boudin's mom served 22 years in prison for her role in the robbery and murders. His father remains in prison in upstate New York, serving a 75-year sentence. Boudin got to know his parents through plexiglass and on occasional weekends through a visiting program where he slept in a trailer on prison property. He says he and his parents saw too many examples of inmates who were never rehabilitated.
BOUDIN: Years now, decades, of visiting my parents behind bars taught me hard lessons about how broken the criminal justice system is - about how devoid of compassion it is. It's not healing the harm that victims experience. It's not rehabilitating people. And in many ways, it's making us less safe.
WESTERVELT: Boudin was adopted and raised by ex-Weather Underground members turned university professors. He says he knows his privilege. Private schools, counselors and whiteness helped him navigate growing up with parents behind bars. He became a Rhodes Scholar and a Yale Law graduate. Today he talks often of the need to get at the larger why behind criminal behavior.
BOUDIN: Is mental health or drug addiction at the root of what occurred? Is there something else motivating it? We need to do a better job identifying what's contributing to the crime and making sure we hold people accountable in a way that addresses that root cause.
WESTERVELT: You talk a lot about root causes. What were the root causes of your parents' crime?
BOUDIN: I was a year old when that occurred, but I think - you know, the root cause was their dissatisfaction with and alienation from our democratic process. And, you know, I'm really proud that I've gone full circle from that and been able to choose to try to reform a system that I see as broken not through armed struggle as they did but rather through the marketplace for ideas in a democratic election.
WESTERVELT: The son opting for his own form of revolution will need lots of support to get his agenda enacted when he's sworn in come January, including cooperation from the many powerful forces who opposed him and were stunned when he won.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco.
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