The Killer D.A.
Chesa Boudin’s Decarceration Disaster
Her name was Hanako Abe. Raised in Fukushima, Japan, she lived through the devastating 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster and emigrated to America to attend university. After graduation in 2018, she settled in San Francisco and worked in commercial real estate. She posted a smiling selfie on Instagram Thursday, announcing her excitement for a new year she would not live to see. Shortly after 4 PM Thursday, she was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking in the SOMA district of San Francisco, just 27 years old. Another woman, Elizabeth Platt, 60, was killed alongside Abe.
The driver, Troy McAlister, was intoxicated and driving a car he stole in Daly City two days earlier from a woman he met on a dating app. Paroled in April after serving time for armed robbery, McAlister had been arrested five times since his release for various crimes, including car theft, most recently on December 20. But none of these recent arrests resulted in any new charges brought by District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s office and McAlister remained free.
This senseless tragedy has brought renewed scrutiny to Boudin’s conduct in office as he enters his second year as D.A. During his now-concluded first year, burglaries in the city spiked by 49 percent, with the increase heavily driven by repeat offenders who were arrested and returned to the streets as Troy McAlister repeatedly was. Displaying a talent for fact-dodging euphemism most politicians can only envy, Boudin referred to these serial reoffenders as "prolific folks," as if they were akin to writers or painters working assiduously at their craft. Faced with one of his "prolific folks" senselessly killing two residents, Boudin deployed a fog of linguistic obfuscation in order to shift blame to the parole division: "We will make changes to ensure that people on parole receive the supervision and structure needed from parole to prevent this tragedy from recurring." If you interpret that to mean that parolees will be sent back to jail for reoffending while on parole, you don’t understand Chesa Boudin and his crusade.
Chesa Boudin was only fourteen months old when both his mother and father, members of a left-wing terrorist group called the Weather Underground, were arrested as accessories to the murder of two police officers and a security guard during the 1981 robbery of a Brinks truck. His mother served over twenty years, while his father is still incarcerated almost forty years later (Boudin was raised by Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn). Boudin has said that his earliest memories are of visiting his parents in prison and these experiences formed his political views. Perhaps because of this personal history (along with a general commitment to doctrinaire leftism that saw him work for and praise Hugo Chavez long after he revealed himself to be a strongman intent on governing for life), Boudin has made decarceration — the reduction of the numbers of people held in jails and prisons — his signature issue. The concept itself is hardly exotic, as limited decarceration in the context of broader criminal justice reform has adherents across the political spectrum. However, Boudin’s ardent advocacy for decarceration borders on the fanatical.
In his victory speech the night he narrowly won his election as D.A. in November 2019, Boudin declared that "There can be no justice when we utilize prison and jail as the solution to all our problems. We must think differently." For a year, Boudin has spoken vaguely of "new solutions" and "alternatives" to incarceration, but so far all we have seen is a move to empty the jails with no plan for the aftermath.
Two days into his tenure as district attorney, Boudin purged from his office seven veteran prosecutors he decided weren’t on board with his decarceration agenda. Two weeks in, he unilaterally eliminated cash bail in the city, thus ensuring that most people arrested for crimes in San Francisco would be quickly returned to the streets while their cases awaited trial. He assured the city’s residents that his office would create an "algorithm" for determining the risk to public safety posed by an arrested suspect before granting their release, but this buzzword appears thus far to be merely a cover for his office having sole discretion for determining when suspects can be released, discretion they consistently exercise in favor of decarceration.
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck last March, Boudin seized on the crisis as an opportunity to accelerate decarceration, and exhorted the state and the nation to do the same in an editorial published in the Los Angeles Times entitled "I’m keeping San Francisco safer by emptying the jail." Invoking his now-elderly father, "a model prisoner with numerous underlying medical conditions," Boudin said no one should be sentenced "to die prematurely from a viral outbreak." He cited the need to "listen to the public health officials" for why he had "reduced San Francisco’s jail population by 40 percent since March 16" (the op ed was published May 6). But it was clear his actions weren’t merely tied to the pandemic, as he declared, "Locking up millions of people destroys families and communities, bankrupts local governments, tends to increase, not decrease, crime rates, and too often provides only cold comfort to victims." To back up his claim that decarceration doesn’t threaten public safety, Boudin boasted that, "Our year-to-year data show that through April, the city and county crime rate has fallen." To be sure, the period between mid-March and the end of April, representing the most severe seven weeks of total lockdown in the city, did show a trail off in criminal activity. Unfortunately for Boudin, time didn’t stop on April 30. I doubt he still wants to brag about his city’s crime statistics. Compared to the prior year, homicides increased 32%, burglaries 49%, and motor vehicle thefts 35% in 2020 according to SFPD statistics.
The steepest rise has been in home and commercial burglaries. Few areas have been hit harder than the Tenderloin, which is, not coincidentally, the epicenter of the city’s fentanyl addiction crisis. From January through the end of November, there were 630 overdose deaths in the city, up from 441 in all of 2019. Fentanyl dealers roam the Tenderloin with impunity, not because police won’t arrest them (they do so repeatedly), but because Chesa Boudin’s office won’t keep them locked up. Many of the long-term addicts who congregate in the Tenderloin inevitably turn to burglary to support their habit. And it is the lower-income, often minority residents and the mom-and-pop businesses of the district who suffer as a result. Turtle Tower, a popular Vietnamese pho restaurant in the area, was robbed in broad daylight. Other restaurants, in the Tenderloin and throughout the city, have seen an already desperate situation during the pandemic worsened by a spate of burglaries while they are closed and unattended.
The SFPD’s Tenderloin division, fed up with the D.A.’s unwillingness to prosecute the repeat offenders it keeps serving up to him, has been throwing some Bravo-quality shade in his direction on their must-follow Twitter account. Here’s a taste:
In other words, the police are catching the bad guys, but the D.A. keeps putting them right back on the street to commit the same crimes again. It’s good that these officers are maintaining their dry-yet-mordant sense of humor about the situation, because the frustration is driving many other officers in the city to seek employment elsewhere. Twenty-three sworn SFPD officers resigned in just the first half of 2020, with Tony Montoya, president of the Police Officers Association, warning in August that "This is just the beginning. Dozens are actively in the hiring process with other agencies. The members are upset that the social experiment being conducted in San Francisco is failing, and they would rather work someplace that values them."
Those who do remain frequently succumb to a cynicism that can breed callousness. The poor owners of Turtle Tower waited two hours for a car to respond to the daylight robbery of their cash tip jar. Police in Daly City knew of Troy McAlister’s theft of his date’s vehicle two days before it was involved in the fatal hit-and-run, but had made little effort to apprehend him, given how many arrests were already stacked on his rap sheet that hadn’t been charged or prosecuted. Such hardened cynicism, while clearly not desirable in police officers, is just as evidently a learned behavior.
Boudin’s office has shown little interest in prosecuting property crimes like shoplifting, car break-ins, and vandalism, proposing instead to reimburse the victims. Supposedly these are "victimless crimes" that aren’t deleterious to the quality of life for city residents. If Boudin has achieved anything in his first year in office, it’s proving the falsity of that view. It’s worth noting that many of these crimes including car theft are only misdemeanors because of the passage in 2014 of Proposition 47, which downgraded a number of felonies to misdemeanors. Had voters known that future district attorneys and prosecutors would lose interest in prosecuting misdemeanors altogether, they may not have agreed so readily to the reclassification.
A crime that no prosecutor is willing to send an offender to jail for committing has effectively been decriminalized. San Francisco has in essence hung a "Burglars Welcome" sign at the city limits. Addicts are flocking to the city, knowing that fentanyl and meth are cheap and plentiful, and they face no danger of criminal sanction for acts of theft to support their habit. Boudin may be right that if the root cause of an offender’s criminal behavior is a drug addiction, it would be preferable to send them to treatment than to jail. But what is the incentive that he provides for hardened addicts to make any change at all when they can go on stealing with impunity? Treatment only becomes an attractive choice when the alternative is jail, and Boudin has taken this threat off the table.
The decarceration disaster unleashed by Boudin in the past year has come about not because decarceration is never the right answer, but because Boudin insists that it is always the right answer. It also increasingly appears to be his only answer. In his heart, he remains the public defender he was for years prior to his ascent to the district attorney’s office. I’m confident he was excellent in that role, and were I an indigent criminal defendant, I would want him in my corner. Certainly, Troy McAlister was lucky to have Boudin as his P.D. when he was facing armed robbery charges in court three years ago, and even luckier when his advocate became D.A. and cut him a sweetheart deal last April, releasing him on parole for time served in county jail rather than making him face a possible third-strike sentence for the robbery. McAlister’s luck reached its zenith when he got arrested multiple times on parole for similar offenses, and wasn’t charged by Boudin.
Public defenders should be trying to keep their defendants out of jail. That is their role in the criminal justice system. The district attorney is supposed to sit on the other side, bringing charges on behalf of the community he serves. Boudin, however, doesn’t think prosecuting and incarcerating criminals helps his community. "We will not narrowly focus on punishment," he told Terry Gross in an NPR interview last spring, "Particularly when that punishment puts our communities at greater risk." How, exactly, does incarceration make us less safe? Less just or less compassionate, perhaps a case can be made. But how would forcing the Troy McAlisters of the city to serve sentences for their crimes make us less safe? It’s bizarre and alarming to hear a district attorney argue that jail is not a deterrent and actually a threat to public safety. It’s like hearing a fire chief declare he doesn’t believe in water.
And yet, Boudin always deflects the obvious implications of his thinking by promising inchoate alternatives to incarceration. He speaks opaquely of "support," "supervision," "structures," and "solutions" that will eradicate the "root causes," and this, along with his much-touted but never-defined "algorithm," will magically engineer public safety without any need for jail. Wave away the miasma of this rhetoric and you see that it always comes down to throwing more money at social programs that are already well funded in the city budget but have done little to prevent an explosion of crime in the streets.
In the wake of the public outcry over the New Years Eve killings, Boudin has promised that Troy McAlister will be held "accountable," but this sudden tough talk is just more rhetorical cover now that the damage is done. Of course killers should be prosecuted. It’s good to know that Boudin will draw a line there — and so obvious that it hardly warrants credit. It’s scant comfort to the residents of San Francisco if the only classes of offenders that Boudin will vigorously prosecute are murderers and DoorDash. We need a D.A. with a bit more prosecutorial energy and judgment than that.
Hanako Abe and Elizabeth Platt must be a wake-up call to San Franciscans. Boudin’s decarceration agenda must be opposed and rolled back. Three more years of crime running unchecked will only hasten the exodus from this city. You cannot have a vibrant, dynamic civic life if young professionals don’t want to work here, and even more crucially, don’t want to raise a family here.
Tiptoeing around dirty needles and human feces, keeping their cars off the street for fear of break-ins or just mindless vandalism, being confronted in their homes by naked, masturbating meth addicts, getting mowed down on city streets by a drunk in a stolen car, and seeing all this and more go unpunished makes people want to leave and put down roots elsewhere. Or worse, they trap those who do remain in a vicious cycle of learned cynicism and resignation. In the world created by D.A. Boudin’s policies, prosecutors learn not to charge, police learn not to arrest, citizens learn not to report, and all learn to live in fear.