It makes sense that Chesa Boudin became a public defender. His grandfather, Leonard Boudin, was a longtime civil rights lawyer who defended Paul Robeson, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Daniel Ellsberg, among others. Chesa Boudin also has seen the horrors of the criminal justice system up close: he was just a toddler when his parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, members of the anti-war group the Weather Underground, went to prison for driving the getaway car in an armed robbery that resulted in three deaths.

What was less likely for Boudin, a man that spent his career sparring with prosecutors, is that he would one day become one. And not just any prosecutor, but the top one for a major American city, with his election as district attorney in San Francisco in November.

“For most of my life, it was impossible to imagine that the district attorney’s office could be focused on undoing some of the damage done by over-policing and mass incarceration,” Boudin told The Washington Post in 2018. He added, “I think it’s up to people who care about the system and have been impacted by it to make sure this movement continues to build.”

Despite San Francisco’s reputation as a bastion of liberal politics, there are harsh inequalities in the criminal justice system. According to Boudin, “There’s no other major city in the country as bad.”

Per the Post:

San Francisco has the nation’s highest racial disparities in incarceration and the most extreme overrepresentation of people of color in its jails: African Americans make up 5 percent of the city’s population but more than 50 percent of those behind bars.

Approximately 17,000 people are booked into the city’s jail per year. Of them, 75 percent are drug-addicted, mentally ill or both, and more than half will be there for a week or less before leaving.

Boudin ran on a platform of criminal justice reform, establishing alternatives to incarceration for multiple offenses (including first-time DUIs), ending cash bail and implementing restorative justice programs. Instead of making incarceration a “revolving door” for those in the system, as he put it to the Post, Boudin says, “We need to make sure they’re getting the kinds of services that are more cost effective, more humane and ultimately going to prevent crime from being committed down the road.”

He’s part of a wave of progressive prosecutors, including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Wesley Bell in St. Louis and Rachel Rollins in Boston, who are actively fighting mass incarceration and holding law enforcement accountable.

He also received endorsements from Black Lives Matter founders Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Alicia Garza, Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders and Krasner, and national headlines in The New York Times and The Washington Post. However, Boudin still faced an uphill battle in his pursuit of the D.A. job.

Boudin had never actually prosecuted a case. San Francisco’s police union spent $600,000 on an ad campaign against Boudin, calling him the “No. 1 choice of criminals and gang members.” Other candidates in the race, including Interim District Attorney Suzy Loftus (endorsed by San Francisco Mayor London Breed and both of California’s senators), tried to portray themselves as progressive too. Loftus said she supported ending cash bail and increasing alternatives to incarceration. As The Appeal points out, however, “as Interim DA, Loftus ended a diversion program for those charged with a first-time DUI offense.”

Despite such opposition, Boudin won. As he told The Appeal, “The people of San Francisco have sent a powerful and clear message: It’s time for radical change to how we envision justice.”

For his tireless advocacy, his willingness to challenge a broken system and commitment to social justice, Chesa Boudin is our Truthdigger of the Month.


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