We speak to San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who was elected in 2019 after promising to end cash bail, curb mass incarceration and address police misconduct. He now faces a recall campaign, with opponents blaming rising crime rates on his policies, even though sources like the San Francisco Chronicle report that crime rates have returned to pre-pandemic levels. Boudin says the recall campaign is spearheaded by wealthy donors, the real estate industry and Republicans who desire a conservative DA who will not hold police and other powerful actors accountable. Opponents who attack Boudin’s social justice reform without any of their own proposals “are a scourge to democracy,” says Boudin. “We don’t need to jail our way out of poverty or other social programs.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We turn now to California to look at the effort to recall Chesa Boudin, the district attorney of San Francisco. Boudin was elected in 2019 on a platform to end cash bail and curb mass incarceration. He’s part of a growing number of prosecutors around the country who have vowed to use the district attorney’s seat to end tough-on-crime tactics and restore civil rights.
During his time in the office, Boudin has taken many historic actions, from charging an officer for manslaughter to creating a wrongful conviction unit that recently led to the freedom of a man wrongfully imprisoned for 32 years. Chesa Boudin has also cut the juvenile jail population in half.
But his efforts to reform the system have faced a backlash, funded in part by the real estate industry and ultra-wealthy donors. Key backers of the recall include the billionaire Republican donor William Oberndorf; former PayPal executive David Sacks; Ron Conway, an early Doordash investor; and Garry Tan, an investor in Instacart.
Chesa Boudin’s critics blame him for what they describe as a rise in crime in San Francisco, but these claims have been challenged. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported, “The data shows that crime shifted dramatically during the pandemic. But now that San Francisco is returning to pre-pandemic behavior, so are its crime rates,” the Chron writes.
Chesa Boudin is the child of Weather Underground activists Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert. He grew up with both parents in prison. His mother, who died last month, was released in 2003. His father was only released late last year after serving 40 years in prison.
San Franciso District Attorney Chesa Boudin joins us now.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Chesa. You face this recall — first of all, condolences on the death of your mother.
CHESA BOUDIN: Thank you, Amy. I appreciate it. And it’s good to be back with you.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about your mother in moment, but I want to talk about the recall that you’re facing on Tuesday. Can you talk about — for many people in the country, it may sound unusual. You’re elected to office, and then you face a recall. But in California, recall challenges are not as unusual. Explain who’s behind this and why you think it’s happening.
CHESA BOUDIN: Thanks, Amy. Yeah, I certainly expected and hoped to be able to buckle down and do the work of fixing our broken and dysfunctional and failed criminal justice system for four years, after I was elected to a four-year term. But you’re right. In California, recalls are all the rage.
And the folks who are behind them, as we saw with the attempted recall of Governor Gavin Newsom, are Republicans and police union operatives and ultra-right-wing groups that have learned the hard way that they cannot win at the ballot box if they put their candidates or their ideas to voters. In other words, their only path to winning is not to actually tell voters what their policies or principles or values or even their candidates are, but rather to attack those of us that have won elections democratically.
As you mentioned, the primary individual donor of the recall against me is a man named William Oberndorf. And to be clear about who he is and what his values are, he has given over $6 million to the PAC controlled by one-time Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And he helped Mitch McConnell, “Moscow Mitch,” as they called him, pack the U.S. Supreme Court. His values include eradicating gun control laws, taking away women’s right to control their own bodies and attacking the right to vote. These are not San Francisco values. But he would never be able to win with his chosen candidate.
And so, instead, they’ve spent the incredible sum of $7 million in a local election without putting forward a single concrete proposal for addressing the problems that San Franciscans face every day, without building a homeless shelter or helping to support our underfunded school teachers, without even advancing one iota of concrete policy proposals or evidence for how we can do better than what we are doing every day.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you think are your greatest accomplishments at this point?
CHESA BOUDIN: Now, I’m tremendously proud of a lot of the work we’ve done, particularly when you look at it in the context of a global pandemic. I took office in January 2020. And two months later, I was shut out of my office, and our courts all but shut down, and we haven’t ever gotten back to full capacity. But despite that obstacle, the things I’m most proud of are — I’ll give you three examples.
First, a historic decrease in our juvenile incarceration population and our overall incarceration population. We have showed that it is possible to dramatically reduce reliance on jails and prisons, even as crime rates remain at historic lows. Our violent crime rates are lower than Oakland or Sacramento, cities nearby with supposedly tough-on-crime prosecutors. We do not need to jail our way up out of poverty or other social problems.
Second, we’ve invested the savings from decarceration in a massive expansion of victim services. I am tremendously proud of the work my victim advocates do, not focused narrowly on punitive outcomes but focused entirely on trying to support those who have been harmed by crime, regardless of what language they speak or what country they were born in. We’ve had a really, really significant increase in language access. I created 10 new victim advocate positions, and eight of the people we hired to fill those positions are fully bilingual. Chinese is the biggest second-language group by far in San Francisco. And incredibly, when I took office, we had just one Chinese-speaking victim advocate. Now we have five. That’s just a couple examples of the victim advocacy work that I’m proud of.
But I want to give you one other category of achievements that I’m proud of, and that is our work to build a justice system that works for everybody, not just the wealthy and the well-connected, our work to hold those in power accountable the same way that the system has been designed to do for generations to those who are Black and Brown or marginalized. In other words, we created a worker protection unit that has sued the very companies folks like Ron Conway and William Oberndorf have invested in and made their millions off of, because they are systematically stealing from their employees. We created an independent Innocence Commission, as you said, that exonerated a man who was wrongfully convicted by this failed system, after 32 years of incarceration. And we are holding police and others in government who are corrupt or who steal from voters and taxpayers accountable. We are doing the difficult work of taking on the entrenched status quo in a way that gives honor and dignity and meaning to the words chiseled in stone over almost every courthouse in America, “equal protection under law.”
AMY GOODMAN: In speaking to The New York Times, you talked about a man who offered to support you if you stopped supporting San Francisco as a sanctuary city. Who was that? And what happened?
CHESA BOUDIN: That was William Oberndorf. I was introduced to him back in 2019 when I was a candidate for office. We had a very short meeting, because he was rabid and livid about San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy. He was insistent that the only path to public safety was for San Francisco to start cooperating with ICE and expediting deportation of anybody who had contact with law enforcement.
I made it very clear to him, as a matter of principle, that I simply disagreed with his view. As district attorney, I told him, and I’ll tell you now, it is critical that all of our communities, including our immigrant communities here, in a city that is a proud sanctuary city, feel comfortable and safe reporting crime and cooperating with law enforcement. If a victim of domestic violence is undocumented, do we want her living in the shadows, not coming forward and seeking services and accountability because of her status? No. We want them coming forward. And we want even those people we prosecute to know that if they show up to court, they will face consequences and accountability comparable to anyone else who is charged with the same crime, but we will not engage in double punishment. We will not undermine the trust or the ability of our immigrant communities to fully participate in our society, to seek services, to be held accountable and to join us in San Francisco as residents that share this beloved city. I told him that.
He was livid and outraged, and his wife tried to calm him down, unsuccessfully. And at that point we ended the meeting, and I haven’t spoken with him since. But he has now pumped more than $650,000 into this recall effort. And half of it, Amy, amazingly, was done in a stock contribution — not cash, but stock — so that he could avoid paying capital gains on the increased value of that stock investment.
AMY GOODMAN: Chesa Boudin, can you tell us about who Joaquin Ciria is and the Innocence Commission?
CHESA BOUDIN: Joaquin Ciria is a Cuban American man who was convicted of a murder he did not commit more than 32 years ago now.
One of my promises as a candidate for district attorney was to create an independent Innocence Commission, because I recognized that it is not enough to do justice going forward; we must also look back in time and correct injustices that have been perpetrated by our office or by the broader criminal legal system. We know that, over time, science and forensic evidence standards have changed and improved. We know that our understanding of police misconduct and prosecutor misconduct and even jury and court error have improved and changed. And so, we do a significant amount of work in my office looking backwards at cases where people were potentially wrongfully convicted or other similar situations where perhaps it wasn’t a wrongful conviction but it was an egregious, draconian sentence. And we try to correct the injustices of the past even as we move forward, with more than 15,000 new criminal cases since I’ve taken office.
In one case, the case of Joaquin Ciria, we found a man who had been convicted of murdering his own friend. There was no real motive. There was no forensic evidence whatsoever connecting him to the case. And we saw many of the red flags of wrongful convictions around the country: no forensic evidence, coerced confessions, a grant of immunity to another person who was in fact a suspect to testify against him, coercive interrogation tactics by police on a juvenile. I could go on.
What we did in that case, once we identified it, was the only thing consistent with the facts and the law and our ethical duty, the oath of office I swore, and that was we asked the court to vacate his conviction and release him. Thankfully, after we had fully briefed the court — the court had reviewed the evidence, as well — the court granted our request, and Joaquin Ciria is now a free man.
I was tremendously privileged to be able to meet him at an event celebrating his release, to speak with him in — it was a fun conversation. It was in Spanglish. We both speak both languages, and we flipped back and forth. And he has a tremendously big heart. He’s not bitter or resentful. He is ecstatic to be with his wife and his family, and to be able to move forward after 32 years of wrongful conviction.
AMY GOODMAN: Chesa Boudin, I wanted to turn to an ad supporting your recall. This was financed by the group San Franciscans for Public Safety.
SAN FRANCISCAN 1: District Attorney Chesa Boudin is telling you …
SAN FRANCISCAN 2: We are racist?
SAN FRANCISCAN 3: Anti-Chinese?
SAN FRANCISCAN 1: Republican?
SAN FRANCISCAN 4: You’ve got to be kidding me.
SAN FRANCISCAN 5: Billionaire? I wish.
SAN FRANCISCAN 6: We’re proud Democrats.
SAN FRANCISCAN 1: Democrats.
SAN FRANCISCAN 7: Progressives.
SAN FRANCISCAN 4: Uniting to recall Chesa Boudin now.
SAN FRANCISCAN 8: Because he is failing to do his job.
SAN FRANCISCAN 9: Supporting the recall was a tough decision for me.
SAN FRANCISCAN 3: But he lets repeat offenders back out on the street without any consequences.
SAN FRANCISCAN 10: We can’t wait until the next election.
SAN FRANCISCANS: Vote yes on H. Recall Chesa Boudin.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that as was put out by San Franciscans for Public Safety. Tell us who they are and respond to the ad’s allegations.
CHESA BOUDIN: Amy, the name of one of the official recall committees is San Franciscans for Public Safety. It’s a fairly disingenuous name, as is that ad. And, frankly, every ad and piece of mail they’ve put out is rife with lies and political spin and propaganda. It’s particularly frustrating to see a Democratic stronghold like San Francisco taking a page out of the playbook of the national Republicans and police unions that are attacking criminal justice reformers like Larry Krasner and Kim Foxx and so many others from coast to coast.
What they are doing is exactly what we are seeing in the efforts to stop criminal justice reform, to undermine policies based in evidence that actually make our communities safer and that begin the long and difficult job of eradicating racial disparities from our criminal legal system. These folks have accepted millions of dollars from Republicans. They pretend that it is a Democrat-led movement. They’ve hired spokespeople. They have recruited folks that were fired or pushed out of my office because they represented the status quo and they refused to think more holistically about how we could build safer, more just communities. And what they do is they invent lies. They take one case, they cherry-pick it, they misrepresent what happened, and they directly straight-up lie to voters.
I’ll give you one example. They had another ad that you didn’t show where a former prosecutor in my office claimed that I disbanded a auto burglary operation team and refused to let her prosecute auto burglary cases. The reality is that I have led — and it’s now public; it was on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle a few weeks ago — what is likely the biggest-ever sting operation involving auto burglary stolen goods in San Francisco history. We led that operation while she was in the office. We have emails from her that were published by the media that show she was well aware of that operation when she left the office. And she went on TV in an ad backed by Republican billionaires like William Oberndorf and lied directly to the camera and said we stopped prosecuting auto burglaries and stopped investigating auto burglary crimes. We led the biggest operation in San Francisco history. She didn’t want to be part of our work. That’s all right.
But what’s so disingenuous and so dishonest is that rather than advancing solutions to the real challenges we face of wealth inequality, of an addiction crisis and public health crisis playing out on our streets, of a backlogged court system, of state laws that desperately need modernization — instead of advancing concrete ideas about how we can do better in promoting safety and justice and accountability, these folks do nothing but attack and spin and lie. They are a scourge to democracy. They are anathema to all people of conscience who are fighting for change and criminal justice reform. In fact, one of the leaders of a separate recall committee just yesterday in The Guardian was quoted. When he was asked about what policies they would advance, what solutions they were advocating for, he was quoted as saying, “We don’t do policy or analysis. We just attack criminal justice reformers.” That’s what he said. That’s what they’re doing. And San Francisco voters are smart enough not to fall for their lies.
AMY GOODMAN: Chesa, before we go, I wanted to ask you about the recent death of your mother, the longtime prison activist and educator Kathy Boudin, who died at the age of 78, May 1st. Kathy Boudin was a former member of the Weather Underground, served 22 years in prison. She was in jail for most of your childhood. After her release, Kathy Boudin co-founded the Center for Justice at Columbia University. Brave New Films recently produced this short video featuring you, Chesa, and your mom.
KATHY BOUDIN: During all the ’60s, I was tyring to figure out, in a deep way, who was I in society, and ultimately spent 22 years in prison.
CHESA BOUDIN: My mom, Kathy, was in a prison that welcomed programming. She received her master’s degree while in prison. She was a founder and facilitator in a group called ACE, AIDS Counseling and Education. It became a national model for AIDS education and prevention, using a peer education approach. My mom also was involved in parenting programs. I’m using much of what she learned herself parenting me.
KATHY BOUDIN: The years that I spent in prison were ones of being very deeply rooted in building community, being part of a community of women. We learned from each other, worked together and, one by one, made it home. I got my doctoral degree in — at Teachers College at Columbia. I grew up wanting to be a doctor. We built a program at a major hospital in New York with, like, five or six different women that I was in prison with. That program was to provide welcoming medical care for people coming home from prison, men and women. We initiated what ended up being the Center for Justice at Columbia. The entire university, different disciplines, would get involved in thinking about the prison system. We all have a way to contribute to reimagining what a system of justice would look like.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Kathy Boudin. She died just a month ago here in New York of cancer. Chesa, can you talk about your mom and what she meant to you? You grew up visiting both your parents in prison.
CHESA BOUDIN: Amy, it’s hard. I loved my mom. If she were here, she’d be watching your show. She loved watching — she loved watching your show. And she found ways every day, from prison during her 22 years behind bars and after she came home, to love me, to support me and to give back to everybody around her. You know, we’re celebrating the tremendously full and rich life that she lived, the generous life that she lived, even as we mourn her loss. And we have so much, so much to be thankful for. You know, she was fighting cancer for seven years, and she lived long enough to be the first person to welcome my son home from the hospital when he was born nine months ago today. She lived long enough to welcome my father home after 40 years in prison. So, I’m sorry it’s emotional, but she was a wonderful mother. And we miss her.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Chesa, before we go, I wanted to ask how your father is doing, just recently released from prison after 40 years and then losing your mother, Kathy Boudin.
CHESA BOUDIN: He’s doing really well, Amy. Thank you for asking. He didn’t expect, of course, to come home and have my mother’s health take such a precipitous decline. But he dove headfirst into being a caretaker for her. And he and I were able to be with her at her bedside when she died, actually listening to the same Nina Simone album that they listened to when she brought me into the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Chesa Boudin, we thank you so much for being with us. Again, condolences on the death of your mother, Kathy Boudin. Chesa is district attorney of San Francisco. He faces a recall vote on Tuesday.
CHESA BOUDIN: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you. Coming up, the Biden administration has canceled almost $6 billion in student loan debt for borrowers who attended the now-defunct network of for-profit schools known as Corinthian Colleges. We’ll get response.
AMY GOODMAN: “Hang On in There” by John Legend and The Roots. John Legend is a prominent endorser of Chesa Boudin, working against the recall vote.