A growing number of San Francisco voters have decided that they’ve had enough of Chesa Boudin as their city’s top prosecutor. But across the country, inexperienced, progressive-minded attorneys are following the same playbook, deciding, like Boudin, who had not been a prosecutor before taking office as district attorney, that they’re qualified to operate the complex machinery of a prosecutor’s office. Their efforts threaten to destabilize even further the nation’s tottering criminal-justice system.
In 2019, Boudin replaced George Gascón, another progressive prosecutor, who had decamped to Los Angeles and now serves as district attorney there. The child of convicted murderers from the radical Weather Underground, Boudin had never served as a prosecutor, much less the chief prosecutor for a major city. Instead, he had worked as a translator for the Hugo Chavez administration in Venezuela before attending law school, clerking for a federal judge, and working as a public defender. Upon running for district attorney, Boudin told voters that he intended to stop prosecuting crimes and empty out the jails, respectable goals for a public defender but dubious policies for a DA. Once elected, Boudin delivered on his promises—and crime, homelessness, and disorder have exploded in San Francisco. Boudin now faces a recall election, funded by disgusted citizens and businesses.
Boudin’s tenure should have served as a warning to others that running a district attorney’s office might not be as simple as it looks. A chief prosecutor must be skilled at evaluating cases, reassuring citizens about public safety, coordinating with law enforcement, recruiting and training new prosecutors, handling a budget, interacting with judges, and a million-and-one other actions that affect urban crime. These skills take time to learn and refine.
But not everybody has paid attention to Boudin’s failures. A new group of idealistic, untested lawyers with limited or no prosecutorial experience and little interest in actually prosecuting criminals are running for the top prosecutor’s spot in smaller cities across the country. Many of these elections will be effectively decided in primaries this spring.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, public defender Alicia Walton is seeking the position of chief prosecutor for the county, where a longtime prosecutor is retiring. Walton self-identifies as a progressive prosecutor and is running on the now-familiar reform platform of ending mass incarceration and disrupting the “fundamentally flawed” “criminal legal system.” She has never prosecuted a single case, yet aims to implement “alternatives to incarceration,” support bail reform, and relax probation rules. Her opponent in the May primary is Will Jones, a 20-year prosecutor backed by the police.
In Oregon, Brian Decker is running for district attorney of Washington County, which is directly adjacent to Portland. Decker served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Obama administration, where he may have internalized the priorities that match his more recent job as a public defender. On his website, Decker attacks “mass incarceration and assembly-line prosecution” and compares the grim effects of crime with “counterproductive policies and fearmongering political slogans” that have allegedly “traumatized” disadvantaged neighborhoods. Incumbent district attorney Kevin Barton, a career prosecutor, warns that Decker would invite the surging crime from progressive Portland into Washington County.
In Omaha, Nebraska, incumbent district attorney Don Kleine used to be a law-and-order Democrat; he switched to a law-and-order Republican in 2020, when the local Democratic Party accused him of “perpetuating white supremacy” after he made a charging decision in a shooting case. Kleine is opposed by David Pantos, who claims that the criminal-justice system is “broken.” Advocating drug legalization and the prioritization of “racial justice,” Pantos says that he won’t seek mandatory-minimum sentences or sentencing enhancements for repeat offenders. He hasn’t served as a prosecutor or as a criminal-defense lawyer, instead working as an attorney for Legal Aid.
In multiple other district attorney races across the United States, veteran prosecutors face challenges from public defenders or other inexperienced reformers. Chesa Boudin showed public defenders how to run on a platform of de-prosecution. In Philadelphia, district attorney Larry Krasner showed that a civil rights and criminal-defense background was sufficient for many voters.
Whether these progressive candidates are public defenders or civil rights “reformers,” their goal is the same: to dismantle our criminal-justice system. If Americans want to keep their cities from descending into the abyss of lawlessness, they should weigh seriously whom they elect to the prosecutor’s office.
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