On June 7, voters in San Francisco recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin after less than two years in office. Like many advocates for criminal justice system reform, I was devastated. The commitment Boudin made to bringing an end to classist and racist prosecutorial practices inspired me, but his personal story touched me on a deeper level.
In 1981, Boudin’s parents—members of Weather Underground—took part in a botched bank robbery that turned violent when he was 14 months old. Each received a multi-decade prison sentence.
Like Boudin, I was impacted by parental incarceration during my childhood. When my father failed to show up for our monthly visitation sessions at the local community center, we assumed something was wrong. A year later, we learned he had been convicted of transporting more than 400 kilograms of cocaine into Florida, a state I had never visited. My father had begun serving a 15-year prison sentence by the time I turned 4, leaving my mom to raise me without support.
Growing up, my father’s incarceration was a source of shame and stigma; I avoided telling the truth about why he wasn’t in my life at all costs. A near total absence of people of similar background in the public sphere further reinforced my sense of insecurity and embarrassment. For most of my childhood, I never came into contact with anyone whose parents were behind bars.
Boudin’s choice to center—not hide—his background on the national stage showed me that my own story didn’t define what I could do. His win was especially meaningful. For the first time, it proved that someone like me wasn’t disqualified from leadership or invalidated as a person—that my parental background could be a source of strength. For the estimated 2.7 million children in the United States with a parent in prison, Boudin’s victory demonstrated that, in one generation, someone could go from having their lives shattered by the criminal legal system to actually playing a role in reshaping it.
But the successful effort to recall Boudin suggested that many thought his goal of rehabilitating criminals came at the expense of protecting victims. Critics focused on his parents’ background, describing them as domestic terrorists and “cop-killers” whose ideology informed Boudin’s perceived leniency towards offenders. “His policies will never usher in the progressive utopia this radical son of 1960s terrorists imagines, but only wreck the city,” said an opinion piece in the New York Post. This type of vitriol is not only normal, but widely accepted. While the 55 percent of voters that recalled Boudin may not have been thinking about his parents when they voted, the outcome strengthened the message that children of imprisoned and jailed people are somehow out-of-place in positions of power.
Parental incarceration is largely an invisible issue. It isn’t part of mainstream policy discourse or even frequently included in conversations around criminal justice reform. According to a recent survey, 7 percent of all US children have had a parent in prison, yet we are severely marginalized and underrepresented in public life. Today, there is almost no one with an incarcerated parent serving in elected office as prosecutors or high-ranking law enforcement officials.
If we want to seriously reform our criminal justice system, we need to listen to those who have felt the human costs of incarceration. Children of imprisoned people understand the consequences of the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and the carceral system in our country that has imprisoned more people than any other on earth.
We can start by having a more open conversation about parental incarceration and working to reduce the stigma around it—in our communities, classrooms, and in the media. Millions of kids growing up need role models, like Boudin, in public life. Children need to know that their potential is not defined by their parents’ actions, that their voices are valued, and that they too can be leaders. For the sake of the next generation, it’s time for us to change the narrative.