Progressive prosecutors are on the run. Having taken office on promises of de-prosecuting and decarcerating without affecting public safety, they’ve helped usher in the largest one-year homicide increase in U.S. history. A CDC report notes that the nation’s homicide rate has risen to its highest level in over 25 years, with the largest increase coming “among non-Hispanic Black or African American males aged 10–44 years.” No surprise, then, that those who promised leniency without consequences now find themselves in serious trouble.
San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin faces a recall vote on June 7. In Boudin’s city, encampments, open-air drug use, and property crime frequently go unpunished. The San Francisco Standard recently reported that amid “a surging fentanyl crisis that killed nearly 500 people last year in San Francisco, the office of District Attorney Chesa Boudin did not secure a single conviction for dealing the deadly opioid for cases filed during 2021.” San Franciscans therefore had no trouble gathering the necessary signatures to trigger the recall vote.
Boudin may have assumed that he’d be safe in progressive San Francisco, but polls show otherwise. In a March poll sponsored by recall supporters, 68 percent of respondents supported recalling him. The D.A.’s staff shrugged it off as a partisan survey, but a recent nonpartisan poll showed 57 percent of voters favoring the recall, 22 percent opposing it, and 21 percent undecided. Ominously for Boudin, 67 percent of Asian voters favored the recall. “The Asian community has had enough,” Leanna Louie told the Standard. “Public safety should be Chesa Boudin’s highest priority, but it feels like he’s focused more on politics and optics than protecting us from the dangerous people on the street.” The same voters who mobilized to oust three members of San Francisco’s Board of Education in February and defeat California’s attempt to reinstate racial preferences in education in 2020 may yet topple Boudin.
Down the coast in Los Angeles, district attorney George Gascón—who may also face a recall election, in November, if supporters get the required number of signatures—is reading the electoral tea leaves. Gascón, the former San Francisco D.A., brought the same progressive philosophies that he used in his earlier position to the City of Angels. Violent crime and property crime accordingly spiked. High-profile cases, from the murder of a popular philanthropist in her home in Beverly Hills to L.A.’s ubiquitous gangs targeting businesses and citizens, seemed to catalyze a political backlash.
In response, Gascón has begun to abandon his progressive convictions. First, he reversed himself on a policy of never charging juveniles as adults, after allowing a 26-year-old to plead guilty as a juvenile to sexually assaulting a ten-year-old girl when the defendant was 17. Next, he retreated on cash bail, after forcing his prosecutors to stop using bail to keep criminals incarcerated. With evidence mounting that this catch-and-release policy—blasted by the L.A. mayor and police chief—was leaving dangerous criminals on the street, Gascón ordered his prosecutors to use cash bail for defendants who pose a public safety risk. The D.A.’s staff called it a response to changing circumstances, but prosecutor Eric Siddall called it “a pathetic attempt for them to correct a bad policy.”
In the Northeast, Larry Krasner, the district attorney in Philadelphia, is running into an even more serious problem: a federal judge who is demanding the truth. Mitchell Goldberg of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has assailed Krasner’s decision to abandon the death penalty conviction of a murderer as both unjustified and potentially disingenuous.
In January of 1984, Robert Wharton and a codefendant broke into the home of a couple for whom they had done some construction work. They tied up the couple and then murdered them both, leaving the murdered couple’s seven-month-old daughter to die (she was rescued days later). Wharton was sentenced to death, but the sentence was reversed because of a flawed jury instruction. A second jury sentenced Wharton to death again, and Wharton kept losing his appeals.
Krasner, elected in 2017, had promised never to seek the death penalty, no matter how horrible the crime. He attempted to abandon the death penalty for Wharton in 2020, claiming that Wharton’s counsel had been ineffective, and that the victims’ family had been consulted on the decision. His office presented the judge with a proposed order from the prosecution and defense asserting that the judge had undertaken a “careful and independent review of the parties’ submissions and all prior proceedings in this matter,” and would accordingly reverse the conviction. But Goldberg told Krasner that he would need actual evidence and appointed the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office to represent the prosecution’s position—a stinging rebuke.
After an extensive hearing where the attorney general’s office presented evidence in place of the district attorney’s office, Judge Goldberg affirmed the death penalty conviction. At the conclusion of his opinion, the judge stated, “It appears that the District Attorney was less than candid with this Court.” Krasner’s office had failed to disclose that the defendant had previously escaped from custody, while telling the court that Wharton’s prison adjustment was positive. And it had failed to consult with the family member who had once been left to die and was now a 37-year-old woman. She strenuously objected to the withdrawal of the death penalty. Goldberg is giving Krasner’s office an opportunity to explain its collective conduct in a hearing. Krasner managed to win reelection last November, but he is facing a different kind of accountability now.
As crime remains elevated, it is worth asking whether the progressive prosecution movement has crested. Voters in San Francisco, working prosecutors in Los Angeles, and a federal judge in Philadelphia have made their views known. Other progressive prosecutors, such as Marilyn Mosby in Baltimore and Kim Gardner in St. Louis, are under a cloud of ethical and criminal inquiries. American voters can be fooled for short periods, but they usually return to common sense. Now may be the time.