The simple fact that Chesa Boudin got elected San Francisco’s district attorney last November confirmed that political revolutions are possible.
A political outsider preaching a gospel of criminal justice reform, Boudin upended the electoral establishment in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hometown, beating the favored contender of the insiders to win one of the most high-profile law enforcement posts in the country.
He did so as the son of Weather Underground radicals who were jailed during his childhood—using his own experience to remind voters that “more than half of Americans have a family member behind bars” and to argue, “I know our system is broken. I’m running for district attorney because I know how to fix it.”
But could he actually fix it? Could the election of a new district attorney usher in a new way of responding to the challenges posed by a criminal justice system that has failed so frequently to deliver on the promise of equal justice for all?
The answer has come two weeks after Boudin was sworn in as San Francisco’s 30th district attorney on January 8. The day he was inaugurated, Boudin stated, “I think there are some changes that I’ll be making.” Some of those changes have come quickly, including a reorganization of the office that saw the removal of managing attorneys in the criminal division.
But the biggest structural change so far came Wednesday when Boudin announced that his office would end the practice of requiring cash bail as a condition for the pretrial release of defendants from jail.
States across the country and many local jurisdictions have in recent years acted to reform the existing cash bail system and to eliminate its worst abuses. Boudin recognized that in his inaugural address, in which he said, “I want to be clear—this vision, these ideas—they are not novel. We did not win because we pioneered this vision. We won because we amplified the voices that for decades have resisted mass incarceration. Finally, our city, and so much of our country is ready to leave the racist, inhumane, ineffective ‘tough on crime’ policies in the past.”
With that said, the newly inaugurated San Francisco district attorney has moved with speed and striking clarity—especially when it comes to eliminating cash bail.
“For years I’ve been fighting to end this discriminatory and unsafe approach to pretrial detention,” Boudin said Wednesday. “From this point forward, pretrial detention will be based on public safety, not on wealth.”
This reform has long been a goal of criminal justice reformers, for reasons that Boudin’s office explained on Wednesday: “U.S. taxpayers spend $38 million daily to jail people who are awaiting trial. Upholding the money bail also comes at high societal cost: pretrial detention, and the disruption that causes to a person’s life, can lead to a 32.2 percent increase in the likelihood of future felony charges and has an immediate impact on an individual’s ability to maintain an income and housing.”
The DA’s message was echoed by Human Rights Watch senior researcher John Raphling, who said, “For too long, prosecutors have used money bail and pretrial incarceration as leverage to pressure people to plead guilty regardless of actual guilt. Boudin’s policy favoring pretrial release is a welcome change and will build the credibility of our courts.”
There are many reasons for this, including the prospect that it will address racial disparities. As Boudin’s office noted, “In San Francisco, African Americans pay over $120 per capita per year in non-refundable bail fees compared to $10 per capita per year for white residents.”
The change that was announced Wednesday embraces the faith that the economic circumstance of a defendant ought not to determine whether they are jailed.
“By replacing money bail with a risk-based system, people who are safe to be released get released quickly with appropriate, non-monetary conditions,” says Boudin, “and those who pose a serious threat to public safety are detained, regardless of their wealth.”
It is important that Boudin has moved quickly, and boldly, on this issue. The signal that he is sending is that elections matter. If people take it to heart, they will respond to a message that Chesa Boudin delivered in his inaugural address:
Our criminal justice system is failing all of us. It is not keeping us safe. It is contributing to a vicious cycle of crime and punishment. More than any country in the history of the world, we have the longest sentences, the largest prison populations, the most bloated law enforcement budgets, and the highest recidivism rates. We consistently fail to address the needs of survivors of sexual assault; to offer restitution to victims of property crime; to include non-English speakers; to heal the trauma caused by violent crime. These failures have led us, as a community, as a nation, to accept the unacceptable.
Join me. Join this movement. Join us in rejecting the notions:
That to be free we must cage others;
that to seek justice we must abandon forgiveness;
that to empower our protectors requires tolerating excessive force;
that to be safe we should put the mentally ill and addicted in cages;
and that jails and prisons should be the primary response to all of our social problems.