When Chesa Boudin, the district attorney of San Francisco, was ousted in a landslide recall vote last week, his loss was a setback for a national movement to remake the justice system.
Elected in 2019, Mr. Boudin became one of the most visible and powerful of a wave of prosecutors who are fulfilling campaign promises to jail fewer people, reduce racial disparities and hold police officers accountable for misconduct.
His ouster is sure to embolden those who say the policies of liberal prosecutors are a threat to public safety in a time of heightened concerns about crime and violence. Already Republican legislators 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, has reportedly far surpassed the number of signatures gathered last year, though may still fall short of the number required.
But there are also signs that the Boudin recall hinged on factors particular to the city of San Francisco and may not represent a larger national backlash to the movement.
Across the country prosecutors seeking to reduce incarceration continue to win elections and re-elections. On the day of Mr. Boudin’s loss, prosecutors billed as reformers came out ahead in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties, both of which are in the Bay Area and far more populous than San Francisco. Rob Bonta, the only Democrat in the statewide race to become California’s attorney general, led his primary by a wide margin, despite repeated attacks claiming that he was soft on crime and attempting to link him 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, N.C., last month, District Attorney Satana Deberry, who has defended the liberalization of bail laws, brought new transparency to plea deals and pledged to fight the “school-to-prison pipeline” by settling school-based offenses out of court, won her primary with 79 percent of the vote.
And some of the most powerful liberal D.A.’s in the country have held onto power. Kim Foxx in Chicago, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Kimberly Gardner in St. Louis were all elected to second terms in 2020, after the rise in homicides began.
Fair and Just Prosecution, a group of like-minded elected prosecutors who espouse policies like reducing the use of fines, fees and money bail, and expanding drug treatment and other alternatives to incarceration, began in 2017 with 14 members and now has 70, who together represent 20 percent of the U.S. population, the organization says. The group includes a sizable contingent of women and people of color, many of whom are firsts in their jurisdiction.
But those gains have been met by “a growing and vicious counterattack” whose “fear narrative” has found traction in the context of elevated homicides, gun violence and the Covid-19 pandemic, said Miriam Krinsky, the group’s executive director.
“I don’t think that means that the progressive movement is over and done with — but I also think it’s something that can’t be and shouldn’t be ignored,” she said of Mr. Boudin’s recall.
Ms. Deberry in North Carolina said voters were not buying claims that her policies promoted crime. “Americans, and certainly Black and brown voters, know a lot about the criminal legal system — they’re almost experts in it,” she said. “Not just the complexity of it, but the way in which it is unfair and how that really impacts their day-to-day 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, as the province of the far left.
Yet even in San Francisco, it was not clear that the recall vote signaled widespread opposition to change. Supporters of the measure ran an ad insisting they were in favor of criminal justice reform — just not of Mr. Boudin. A poll conducted by a Democratic firm showed that many of his policies, like unwinding wrongful convictions and creating a unit to protect workers from employment law violations, remain popular. Even some of his most vocal critics acknowledged that he could not be blamed for big problems that were largely outside his control, like escalating drug addiction and homelessness.
“No, California didn’t just send a message on crime — only voter apathy,” read the headline of an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, citing low turnout.
One commentator, in a Chronicle opinion article, warned of the emergence of what he called the “‘I’m a progressive, but …’ demographic” of affluent white people whose commitment to social justice and ending mass incarceration has limits and whose frustrations are real, even if the recall campaign was fueled by misinformation. “Boudin supporters can’t afford to dismiss the movement against meaningful reform as a purely astroturfed coalition,” he wrote.
As more liberal prosecutors have won office, opponents have turned to recalls and other methods to curtail their power. In Pennsylvania, there is a bill to impose term limits on district attorneys. In Florida, when an elected prosecutor announced that she would no longer seek the death penalty, her office budget was slashed and her cases reassigned.
In Illinois last week, State Representative Tim Butler, Republican of Springfield, used the success of the Boudin recall to renew a proposal that voters be allowed to recall Ms. Foxx and only Ms. Foxx — or at least, whomever Cook County elects as its chief prosecutor. “What happens in Chicago, what happens in Cook County, does impact the rest of the state,” Mr. Butler said, adding that the violence there had made people afraid to visit the city.
But more liberal policies still seem to appeal to those most vulnerable to violence. John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University, said that a preliminary look at voting patterns suggests that in San Francisco, Philadelphia and other cities, the areas most affected by violent crime and guns tend to strongly support liberal prosecutors. In San Francisco, though, gun crime was not the biggest issue — concerns centered around retail theft, car theft, hate crimes against Asians and a general sense of disorder and filth, not to mention a huge concern that is not a crime at all: homelessness.
Janos Marton, the national director of Dream Corps JUSTICE, an advocacy group, and a candidate in last year’s race for Manhattan district attorney, said he was not impressed with arguments that played down the significance of Mr. Boudin’s loss in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. “This is a huge deal,” he said. “This is very disappointing. This is a big setback.”
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The recall may not have been a death knell for the movement, he said, but it exposed “longstanding weaknesses,” particularly a failure to recognize that liberal gains in the criminal justice arena are fragile and must be defended even after they are won.
Mr. Marton pointed to how quickly new laws to sharply limit requiring money for bail in New York were weakened. Alvin Bragg, who won the Manhattan district attorney race, came across as a relatively moderate candidate, but once in office he was met with a fierce backlash that eventually caused him to roll back some of his plans. At the time, he did not have a full communications team in place.
“We’re not learning the lessons of past defeats,” Mr. Marton said, adding, “The very aggressive messaging that’s hostile to criminal justice reform is not going to let up, so we need to be honest about whether our countermessaging as a movement is successful.”
Countermessaging, however, can be tough — a story about 1,000 people who were allowed to await trial at home with their families and hold onto their jobs can be less compelling than that of one person who hurt or killed someone while out on bail.
“We have to acknowledge that crime is up, that people are afraid,” Ms. Foxx, the chief prosecutor in Chicago, said in an interview. “I think for too many folks when they talk about reform, they don’t talk about the link to public safety.”
Ms. Foxx said she tried to emphasize that declining to prosecute people for drugs freed up resources to fight shootings, and that the sense of fairness that came from exonerating the wrongfully convicted or holding the police accountable for wrongdoing made witnesses more willing to come forward and cooperate.
And, she said, prosecutors are “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 addiction or mental illness. That can’t be fixed with a recall, she said: “Nothing is going to change in terms of those conditions because Chesa’s not there.”
Jonah E. Bromwich contributed reporting.