As pretty much everyone expected, San Francisco’s top prosecutor, District Attorney Chesa Boudin, lost the recall election against him yesterday, with around 60 percent of voters approving his recall. Boudin, a progressive who fought for criminal justice reform, was caricatured by the recall campaign and in local media as “soft on crime,” and by golly, the fear campaign worked, because nobody likes crime, so Boudin had to go.
Never mind that most of the claims about crime in San Francisco have been exaggerated by local media (and blown utterly out of proportion by national rightwing outlets). Maybe there’s no evidence that Boudin bears responsibility for upticks in crime that are mostly related to the pandemic, but there were a lot of scary videos of homeless encampments and brazen shoplifting on YouTube, and San Francisco has seen the same increase in the murder rate that other big cities have, so his chances of surviving the recall were toast. Now Fox News can claim that “even voters in liberal San Francisco” have had it with criminal justice reform, and the cop unions will rejoice.
Does Boudin’s recall really signal that progressive prosecutors nationwide will be rejected and the nation will suddenly embrace backlash, love cops like God wants, and return to the good old days of incarcerating people forever for drug and property crimes? Probably not, but that’s certainly what we’re hearing from national pundits, like this dumb Washington Post headline proclaiming Boudin’s recall “proves Democrats have lost the public’s trust on crime.”
But if you’ll indulge a little bit of “not even ___ says” from us, we’d point out that not even the chair of the recall campaign believes San Francisco is now in the mood to start using Alcatraz as a prison again. Mary Jung, said chair of said campaign, said last night that while the recall shows voters want a new DA who’ll hold “serious, violent and repeat offenders accountable” and support victims’ rights, Jung also said,
This election does not mean that San Francisco has drifted to the far right on our approach to criminal justice. In fact, San Francisco has been a national beacon for progressive criminal justice reform for decades and will continue to do so with new leadership.
For his part, Boudin told supporters Tuesday night that it’s a bit early for anyone to be writing obituaries for progressive justice reform, because it’s about far more than just him:
[We] are just getting started, because we knew that fixing a system that has systematically failed us — not just for decades, but for generations, for centuries — was not the work of one year, or one term. It’s certainly not the work of one man or woman or one office.
This isn’t to say that everything’s just ducky, but that the perception of crime is almost always far worse than the actual prevalence of it, as we saw for decades when crime rates were declining nationwide but polling consistently showed that people believed crime was getting worse — with the most distorted perceptions of crime among people who consume the most sensational news.
Boudin also seemed tone deaf toward the very real problem of hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic; following the 2021 murder of Vichar Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old immigrant from Thailand, Boudin called the killing a “horrific, senseless attack,” but also told the New York Times, referring to surveillance videos of the assailant pounding on parked cars prior to the attack on Ratanapakdee, that “It appears that the defendant was in some sort of a temper tantrum,” which understandably offended the victim’s family and sounded to many like Boudin was downplaying the murder. Boudin said the comment was taken out of context, since he was talking about the weird behavior before the attack, and he did charge the assailant with murder. But Boudin wasn’t able to win the trust of many Asian Americans, who helped drive the recall campaign.
As the LA Times reports, crime rates in San Francisco have been a mixed bag during Boudin’s term, particularly during the pandemic:
Property and violent crimes fell by double-digit percentages during Boudin’s first two years in office. But some individual categories of crime surged in the same time frame: Burglaries rose 47%; motor vehicle theft, 36%. Homicides also increased, though the city saw its lowest number of killings in more than a half-century in 2019.
In fact, the murder rate in San Francisco during the pandemic hasn’t increased as much as in other cities, including several Republican-led cities.
Thanks to local media amplifying the scariest stories, the public buys into the fearmongering, to the point that they’re convinced San Francisco is in some kind of death spiral, the facts be damned. As Mother Jones points out, despite the upticks in crime during the pandemic,
as the city increasingly returns to pre-pandemic behavior and more people leave their homes to work and socialize, crime has also largely shifted back toward pre-pandemic levels in the city and the state. In other words, lawlessness has not gotten markedly worse under Boudin.
But as they always say on the cable TV about what they always say in politics, if you have to explain reality versus perception, you’re already losing. San Francisco Mayor London Breed will now appoint a new DA, and Fox News can start insisting that person is also too soft on crime, while its anchors keep claiming the city’s sidewalks are full of discarded heroin needles and “human excrement,” making sure to linger over each horrifying syllable.
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