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Chesa Boudin's ouster raises questions about the future for progressive prosecutors


San Francisco is a city known for its liberal politics. But this past Tuesday, voters there ousted the city's progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin. Since being elected DA, Boudin has made headlines for his progressive approach to criminal justice, like eliminating cash bail and working to reduce the city's prison population and using restorative justice instead of prison time. But in the face of a strong recall campaign and increased violent crime, voters decided they'd had enough. And Boudin's recall has raised questions about whether other progressive DAs across the country could face similar challenges and what it means for the broader criminal justice reform movement.

Joining me to discuss this is Josie Duffy Rice. She writes about prosecutors and the criminal legal system and supports reforms to it. Josie Duffy Rice, welcome.

JOSIE DUFFY RICE: Thank you so much for having me.

THOMPSON: Explain what a progressive prosecutor means.

DUFFY RICE: We use it as a term to describe prosecutors who recognize that the criminal justice system is not the best way to address societal problems. And so in the face of the biggest mass incarceration epidemic that this country has ever seen, and one of - the biggest one that the world has ever seen - right? - there have been a number of prosecutors who have thought, you know, this is not the way that we want to do business. We don't want to lock up every single person. We do want to respect the fact that pretrial incarceration, you know, is unconstitutional. We don't want to use prisons to solve addiction and poverty. And so Chesa is in line with that trend of people who recognize that the prosecutor's office was not actually the way to address many of the problems that cities were seeing.

THOMPSON: What's your reaction to this recall?

DUFFY RICE: You know, I think - on one hand, I think it's extremely disappointing that he got recalled. I think that what's happened in San Francisco has been really an effective effort by a lot of right-wing money and the media to kind of paint crime in San Francisco as skyrocketing and Chesa as the source of that, when neither of those two things is actually true when you look at the numbers.

But on the other hand, I think, like, one city is one city, right? The, quote-unquote, "progressive prosecutor" movement is a much larger movement, and not everybody is going to win every time, right? Some people are going to be successful; others will not. Even in California, we saw some movement on Election Day around - positive movement around other cities and progressive prosecutors there. So I think that while I find it disappointing, I don't necessarily find it kind of an omen for the rest of the country.

THOMPSON: You talked earlier about violent crime rates. And according to FBI data that, as you know, is released every fall, homicides increased nearly 30% nationally in 2020 from the previous year. And 2020 also saw the highest number of hate crimes in two decades. We know that DAs in other major cities, like Philadelphia - you mentioned Kim Foxx - Chicago and Baltimore, are considered progressive. What does that mean for them?

DUFFY RICE: I think that we need to be able to have a conversation within the criminal legal reform community about the fact that crime is going to go up and down. That is the nature of crime, right? During a pandemic, during one of the most major fluctuations that this country has ever faced, during a time of major uncertainty - right? - it is not surprising that crime went up. There are countless societal dynamics that contribute to rising and falling crime. One of the biggest ones of the past couple years has been the pandemic. And so that I don't think is surprising. I think what we need to make sure that we continue to do is remind people that police and prosecutors are a back-end power when it comes to crime. They are not a front-end power. They will not - they're not preventative, right? They get involved at the point that something bad has already happened.

And so as long as we continue to remind people that what solves crime is making sure that people have stable housing, making sure that people can put food on the table, making sure they have the addiction treatment they need, making sure that, you know, kids in high school - you know, teenagers have places they can go to - you know, after school, right? We actually know how to address crime and address harm, and we need our leaders to invest in that instead of investing in police and prisons even more.

THOMPSON: In your line of work, you pay attention to prosecutors and criminal justice issues more broadly.


THOMPSON: So as the election approaches, are there things you're going to be paying attention to to track how voters are responding to public safety issues?

DUFFY RICE: Yeah. I think that I'm going to always - I mean, I obsessively pay attention to prosecutor trends, so - right? So I will continue to do that. I think I'm interested to see what we see over the next couple of years. I mean, remember that, like, when Kim Foxx was elected in 2016, that was near the very beginning of this push for people to rethink prosecution. And we're only a few years out from that, right? And so we're at the beginning of this fight. We're not at the end of it. And we're going to continue to push for a rethinking of what a prosecutor is in cities.

But I guess what I would say is that that also goes beyond just prosecutors. That goes - when you think about elections, it goes to what other elected officials on the city, state and federal level - how they talk about crime and how they talk about safety, how they really reimagine safety to not just be, you know, do we have more cops on the street? But do people have - do they have the kind of, not just safety but stability that they need?

I would just say a lot of this is bigger than elections, and it's certainly bigger than prosecutors. To really rebuild and rethink and reconstruct a healthy system in this country, we are going to need to think much, much bigger than who is in office, right? We need to think about what these positions actually do and whether we are, as a country, still overly relying on punishment and retribution as a way of solving, you know, the problems that harm us.

When you look at San Francisco, that is a city with enormous income inequality - right? - enormous issues with gentrification, enormous issues with addiction that have existed for much, much longer than Chesa has been in office. And so the idea that it's going to be solved by the local prosecutor - these broader systemic issues - is a fiction. And I think the sooner that we can recognize that, the better.

THOMPSON: That was Josie Duffy Rice. She's a journalist and fellow at the Type Media Center. Josie Duffy Rice, thank you so much.

DUFFY RICE: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.