Boudin and the Complexity of Reform Politics

Despite the Chesa Boudin recall making national headlines, states will likely continue experimenting with approaches to their area-specific problems. Criminal justice reform in our highly decentralized system isn’t over. 

By Jonathan Blanks

Tagged CitiesCrimecriminal justiceHousingInequalitymunicipal politicspoliticsstates

The recall of San Francisco’s progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin has predictably reignited the national debate on criminal justice reform and prosecutor reform in particular. Those celebrating his recall overstate its importance for the rest of the country and what it means broadly for supporters of bail reform, less aggressive policing, and other non-carceral alternatives for offenders. Those who lament the loss would nonetheless do well to recognize certain lessons it holds.

The politics of crime has always been more complicated than the simple red state/blue state dichotomy. Crime tends to be a local phenomenon and different places in America have different status quo politics that must be respected by elected officials, no matter how convinced they are in the righteousness of their positions. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that what is popular in the moment isn’t always effective, nor are hot-button political scapegoats always the true causes of local problems, both real and perceived.  

Some peculiarities of politics in San Francisco

Although the city has long been synonymous with American political left to the point of slur and mockery by the right, and neighborhoods like the Castro sometimes exhibit an almost anarchic sensibility toward self-expression, there is an institutional (though certainly not Republican) conservatism that animates a substantial portion of San Francisco politics.

In the national arena, San Francisco-based politicians Senator Dianne Feinstein and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi are certainly progressives, but far closer to their party’s center than the next generation of progressives like Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While neither Feinstein or Pelosi could be mistaken for Republicans, they now represent the traditional, institutional Democratic politics under “attack” from the younger, more activist-friendly left.

Locally, San Francisco is remarkably wealthy city notorious for its housing crisis, the byproduct of local regulations which encourage NIMBYism and sky-high housing costs. The resulting disparities ironically exacerbate the effects of income inequality, the progressive bête noire of the past decade or so. As columnist Clarence Page noted, the upscale propertied class in San Francisco may have become more conservative as it accumulated “more to conserve.” Nellie Bowles put it more bluntly in the Atlantic, writing “There is a sense that, on everything from housing to schools, San Francisco has lost the plot—that progressive leaders here have been LARPing left-wing values instead of working to create a livable city.”

Yet the same voters who threw Boudin out in a low-turnout election voted overwhelmingly for Rob Bonta, the progressive incumbent state attorney general, suggesting that the recall may have been more about Boudin himself than it was a city fed up with reformist ideas or left-wing LARPing.

Progressive prosecutors and criminal justice reform in other blue havens

That said, Boudin’s ouster is a reminder that moral clarity is not a substitute for practical politics. Particularly in a state like California which has the power of recall written into its constitution, successful office holding requires strong allies and community support. Several reform-minded prosecutors across California and the rest of the country have withstood electoral challenges even amid increases in crime.

Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner survived a “tough-on-crime” challenge and won re-election in 2021. As Fordham law professor John Pfaff explained, Krasner drew some of his strongest support from poorer neighborhoods most affected by crime and violence. Likewise, Kim Foxx won re-election in Chicago despite the city being a conservative punching bag for violent criminals running amok. Neither her closest primary challenger nor her Republican opponent broke 40 percent of the vote. If the people who are most likely to feel the effects of crime continue to support reform policies to deal with criminal perpetrators, the greatest challenge for reformers is building and keeping the trust of the electorate.

Certainly, Boudin’s loss is not the only electoral setback to criminal justice reforms in deep blue states and cities. The election of populist tough-on-crime Democratic Mayor Eric Adams in New York City has and will likely continue to roll back some reformsin the Big Apple, particularly regarding the police department. On the horizon, Democratic primary challengers to New York Governor Kathy Hochul are attacking her on crime from both the left and the right. Although she is expected to earn the nomination and win the general election in the fall, the centrality of crime to New York politics may entice her to shore up her right flank by moving closer to Adams’ positions in a spirit of comity.

Relatedly, if this fall’s congressional elections bring Republicans back into power in Washington as currently expected, a relatively higher conservative turnout may spell trouble for more state and local reformers, particularly in “purple” locales, echoing what happened in 2021 in Virginia.

Crime as fear mongering

Crime politics has long been a conduit of American fear. Although its impact on the election outcome has probably been overstated, the legacy of the Willie Horton ad attacking 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis taught at least two generations of Democratic politicians that “tough on crime” was a winning strategy to higher office. Both President Biden and Vice President Harris built their reputations bolstering the criminal legal system.

As William Stuntz explained in The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (Harvard University Press, 2011), the harsh criminal laws and policies enacted in the 1980s and ’90s were largely driven by the fears of a middle-class white suburban electorate, but those who bore the brunt of aggressive policing and harsh sentences were overwhelmingly poor Black and Hispanic urban residents. This may partially explain why Boudin failed while Foxx and Krasner succeeded: San Francisco’s Black population is a small fraction of either Chicago’s or Philadelphia’s. Larger electoral blocs with decades of experience living with punitive criminal enforcement may be more accepting of and patient with noncarceral strategies.

Moreover, the defenders of the old status quo have spent years explaining that less punitive criminal sanctions and reduced reliance on policing would bring social calamity, often justifying racial profiling in the process. Only in recent years have they been able to point to upticks in homicides and other crimes that they said would come years ago, and now they lay these at the feet of progressive prosecutors.

But correlation doesn’t mean causation.

When the NYCLU sued to end stop and frisk, some conservatives argued crime would skyrocket if the program were curtailed. It didn’t. When the courts ordered the release of tens of thousands of California inmates to relieve unacceptable overcrowding conditions, crime did not rise, let alone spike, even though many of those released early were “violent offenders.” More recently, though some police officials try to blame “bail reform” for increasing gun violence on social media, their tune abruptly changes under oath because the data just doesn’t support such claims.

Unsurprisingly, the preliminary data on prosecutorial reform outcomes shows no meaningful effect on crime rates. Although some of Boudin’s supporters point to higher crime rates under more punitive prosecutors, we just don’t have reliable data to say how much any given prosecutor’s policies affect local crime rates one way or the other, particularly when considering how other exogenous factors like homelessness, job loss, and the effects of global pandemics might influence disorder among the most at-risk populations.

Crime is a very local phenomenon and our decentralized prosecution systems make any national trend prediction largely an act of folly. It’s possible that broad reform efforts have crested and many local governments will return to the old ways, but it’s more likely cities and states will continue to experiment with different methods to handle their area-specific problems, decreasing penalties for some behaviors and increasing penalties for others. That is both the blessing and the curse of electing prosecutors.

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Jonathan Blanks is a Research Fellow in Criminal Justice at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity.

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