The lessons liberal prosecutors are learning from the San Francisco backlash

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When Chesa Boudin, the San Francisco district attorney, was ousted in a landslide recall vote last week, her loss was a setback for a nationwide movement to remake the justice system.

Elected in 2019, Boudin has become one of the most visible and powerful prosecutors in a wave of prosecutors delivering on campaign promises to jail fewer people, reduce racial disparities and hold police accountable. of their faults.

His ousting is sure to embolden those who say Liberal prosecutors’ policies pose a threat to public safety at a time of heightened concerns about crime and violence. Already Republican lawmakers in New York and Illinois, where they are in the minority party, have proposed legislation to allow prosecutor recalls. In Los Angeles, a second recall effort against George Gascón, the liberal district attorney, reportedly far exceeded the number of signatures collected last year, though it may still fall short of the required number.

But there are also signs that Boudin’s recall was based on factors unique to the city of San Francisco and may not represent a larger national reaction to the movement.

Across the country, prosecutors seeking to reduce incarceration continue to win elections and re-elections. On the day Mr. Boudin was lost, prosecutors portrayed as reformers emerged victorious in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, both located in the Bay Area and much larger in population than San Francisco. Rob Bonta, the lone Democrat in the statewide race to become California’s attorney general, led his primary by a wide margin, despite repeated attacks claiming he was soft on crime and trying to cut it. link to Mr. Boudin and Mr. Gascón.

In Des Moines, Iowa, last week, Kimberly Graham won the Democratic primary after criticizing the failures of a tough on crime approach. In Durham, North Carolina, last month, District Attorney Satana Deberry, who has championed liberalized bail laws, brought new transparency to plea deals and pledged to fight the “school-prison pipeline” by settling school offenses out of court. , won his primary with 79% of the vote.

And some of the most powerful liberal prosecutors in the country have held on to power. Kim Foxx in Chicago, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Kimberly Gardner in St. Louis were all elected for a second term in 2020, after the start of the rise in homicides.

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Fair and Just Prosecution, a group of like-minded elected prosecutors embracing policies such as reducing reliance on fines, fees and bail, and expanding drug treatment and other alternatives to The incarceration, started in 2017 with 14 members and now has 70, which together represent 20% of the American population, according to the organization. The group includes a large contingent of women and people of color, many of whom are first in their jurisdiction.

But those gains have been met by “a growing and vicious counterattack” whose “fear narrative” has found ground in the context of high homicides, gun violence and the Covid-19 pandemic, Miriam said. Krinsky, the group’s executive director.

“I don’t think that means the progressive movement is over and done with, but I also think it’s something that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored,” she said of Ms. . Black pudding.

Ms. Deberry, in North Carolina, said voters did not buy claims that her policies encouraged crime. “Americans, and certainly black and brown voters, know a lot about the criminal justice system — they’re almost experts on it,” she said. “Not just the complexity of the thing, but how unfair it is and how it has a real impact on their daily lives.”

The push for reform was once touted as bipartisan, common-sense medicine for a country that leads the world in incarceration. But it has been reframed by opponents, including law enforcement groups, like the far-left Province.

Yet even in San Francisco, it was not clear that the recall vote signaled widespread opposition to the change. Supporters of the measure ran an ad insisting they were in favor of criminal justice reform – but not Mr Boudin. A poll conducted by a Democratic company showed that many of its policies, such as reversing wrongful convictions and creating a unit to protect workers from labor rights violations, remain popular. Even some of his most vocal critics acknowledged that he couldn’t be blamed for big problems that were largely beyond his control, like escalating drug addiction and homelessness.

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“No, California didn’t just send a message about crime — only voter apathy,” read the headline of a San Francisco Chronicle editorial, citing low voter turnout.

One commentator, in a Chronicle opinion piece, warned of the emergence of what he called the real ”,” even though the recall campaign has been fueled by misinformation. “Boudin supporters cannot afford to dismiss the movement against meaningful reform as a purely astroturfed coalition,” he wrote.

As more liberal prosecutors were elected, opponents turned to recalls and other methods to curb their power. In Pennsylvania, there is a bill to impose term limits on district attorneys. In Florida, when an elected prosecutor announced she would no longer seek the death penalty, her office’s budget was cut and her cases were reassigned.

In Illinois last week, State Rep. Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican, used the success of Boudin’s recall to renew a proposal that voters would be allowed to recall Ms. Foxx and only Ms. Foxx — or the less, whom Cook County elects as its chief prosecutor. “What happens in Chicago, what happens in Cook County, has an impact on the rest of the state,” Butler said, adding that the violence there has left people scared. to visit the city.

But more liberal policies always seem to attract those most vulnerable to violence. John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University, said preliminary examination of voting patterns suggests that in San Francisco, Philadelphia and other cities, the areas most affected by violent crime and guns on fire tend to strongly support liberal prosecutors. In San Francisco, however, gun crime wasn’t the biggest problem – concerns centered on retail theft, auto theft, hate crimes against Asians, and a general sense of disorder and filth, with no talk about a huge concern that is not a crime at all: homelessness.

Janos Marton, national director of Dream Corps JUSTICE, an advocacy group and candidate in last year’s race for Manhattan prosecutor, said he was unimpressed with arguments that downplayed the importance of the loss of Mr. Boudin in a predominantly Democratic city. “It’s a huge deal,” he said. “It’s very disappointing. It’s a big setback. »

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The recall may not have spelled the death knell for the movement, he said, but it did reveal “long-standing weaknessesin particular a failure to recognize that liberal gains in criminal justice are fragile and must be defended even after they are achieved.

Mr Marton pointed to how quickly new laws aimed at sharply limiting the need for bail money in New York have been weakened. Alvin Bragg, who won the Manhattan District Attorney race, emerged as a relatively moderate contender, but once in power he faced a backlash that eventually led him to reverse some of his plans . At the time, he didn’t have a full communications team in place.

“We’re not learning lessons from past defeats,” Mr Marton said, adding: “The very aggressive anti-criminal justice reform messaging isn’t going to stop, so we have to be honest about whether our counter-message as the movement is successful.

However, the counter-message can be difficult – a story about 1,000 people who were allowed to await trial at home with their families and keep their jobs may be less compelling than that of someone who injured or killed someone while she was out on bail.

“We have to recognize that crime is on the rise, that people are scared,” Chicago chief prosecutor Ms. Foxx said in an interview. “I think for too many people, when they talk about reform, they’re not talking about the connection to public safety.”

Ms Foxx said she tried to point out that refusing to prosecute people for drugs frees up resources to fight shootings, and that the sense of fairness that comes from exonerating those wrongfully convicted or holding police accountable for wrongdoing made witnesses more willing to come forward and cooperate.

And, she said, prosecutors are the “last responders” — people called upon to act when all social safety nets fail, as a last resort for those who cannot afford housing or treatment for the addiction or mental illness. It cannot be solved with a reminder, she said: “Nothing is going to change in terms of conditions because Chesa is not here.”

Jonah E. Bromwich contributed report.

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