How does one keep the party going when key guests gather their coats and leave? And what if they’re not leaving quietly? Such is the situation for San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin. Prosecutors who work in his office are defecting. In fact, since Boudin started his term in office, at least 51 of the department’s attorneys have either been fired or have left of their own accord. The most dramatic departures have been the recent resignations of two assistant district attorneys, Brooke Jenkins and Donald du Bain. Both consider themselves progressive and committed to “restorative justice,” yet they not only quit and took their scathing reviews of Boudin to the media; they’ve also joined the Safer Without Boudin recall campaign seeking to oust their former boss from office.
Since assuming office on January 8, 2020, Boudin has faced two recall efforts. The first fell just shy of the 51,325 signatures needed by August 11, 2021, to trigger a special election. The second attempt crashed over that bar, with 83,000 validated signatures. The city will most likely hold a special election next June, and if voters choose to recall Boudin, Mayor London Breed will appoint his replacement.
In explaining their exodus, Jenkins and du Bain blamed Boudin for San Francisco’s becoming more dangerous. “Public safety is not his focus. That is not his goal,” Jenkins told KTVU in an interview. She continued:
His goal appears to be what is best for the individual who has been arrested for a crime or who has been charged with a crime, but not what is best for San Francisco. I actually submitted my resignation to the office as a result of my belief that the office is headed in the wrong direction. . . . Chesa has shown an unwillingness to prosecute crime effectively in San Francisco. We are seeing repeat offenders and dangerous individuals being released before they should be.
Jenkins goes on to say that Boudin is not doing what the voters elected him to do, which is to balance criminal justice reform with public safety. She makes it clear that she’s not arguing for mass incarceration, but for public safety and what she sees as justice for defendants.
Du Bain, a prosecutor with 30 years of experience, cites the Troy McAlister debacle. McAlister had eight prior felony convictions, three of them violent and serious, and was facing a life sentence for his latest crime. Boudin released him from custody before trial. After his release, McAlister was arrested four times for burglary and car thefts over the course of nine months. Then, on December 31 of last year, McAlister stole a car, sped through the city while high, and hit two women, Hanako Abe and Elizabeth Platt, killing them both. “Those women are not alive today because of the very abrupt and reckless decision that Chesa made to release Troy McAlister,” said du Bain in the KTVU interview.
Leanna Louie, a Safer Without Boudin volunteer leader, is grateful that Jenkins and du Bain are joining the effort. “It’s validating,” she said. “We’ve been talking about the way Boudin is hurting the community for so long. When these two from the inside left, it’s starting to sink in with people. The attorneys are coming in as volunteers; they’re on our side. That says a lot about what’s wrong with the system. People are not afraid to speak out anymore. They were scared at first, but not now. I mean, how many cases can you botch?”
Some city supervisors also seem to be distancing themselves from Boudin. None has overtly supported the recall movement, but supervisor Catherine Stefani may be leaning that way. She recently called out Boudin for his abysmal record of prosecuting domestic-violence perpetrators. She says that out of 131 arrests for felony domestic violence with weapons against women and children, the district attorney’s office dismissed 113 of the cases. In one, a man arrested for holding a gun to his wife’s head and injuring her in front of their two-year-old son received a deal from Boudin’s office that downgraded the crime to misdemeanor vandalism. Stefani is demanding transparency, saying that the public deserves to know how often dangerous criminals are being set free.
The nervousness of the Stand With Chesa team is evident. At a recent rally for Boudin, only a few dozen people showed up. Among them were a few politicians, including David Campos, chair of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee and former city supervisor Sandra Fewer, known for her “F- the POA” (Police Officers Union) chant. Attempts to portray the recall as a Republican-led effort have lost traction, as left-leaning San Franciscans who voted for Boudin are backing away.
“It was natural to gravitate toward voting for Chesa Boudin,” says San Francisco resident Simon Timony, a longtime Green Party activist. “I ultimately gave him a chance with the best of intentions, because I do believe in justice reform, but what he’s doing is setting the movement back decades. . . . The chaos and violence which has resulted from his tenure is so egregious that even people like me who voted for Bernie Sanders are dusting our hands and saying enough is enough.”
Today, approximately one-third of the lawyers present in the district attorney’s office when Chesa Boudin was sworn in are gone, and the smiles on the remaining partygoers are strained. Who else is eyeing the exit?
Photo By Yalonda M. James/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images