Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:06)
Welcome to the Radical Imagination podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. In this episode, we look at radical and innovative policies that can help transform the criminal legal system. A wave of reform minded prosecutors and state attorneys are working to reduce the unnecessary prosecution of low level nonviolent offenses, focusing on serious and violent crimes and bringing more accountability to policing.
Media Clip: (00:38)
The stunning victory of public defender Chesa Boudin has been declared the winner of a hotly contested district attorney's race in San Francisco.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:46)
Earlier this year, Chesa Boudin who ran a campaign on transforming the criminal legal system became San Francisco's new district attorney.
Media Clip: (00:55)
Boudin is the child of Weather Underground activists Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, who were both incarcerated when he was still a toddler. He learned the news that he'd won the race while he was on a plane flying back from visiting his father who remains in prison in upstate New York.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:11)
Today we're joined by San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin to talk about his personal journey and the role that prosecutors can play in bringing justice into the criminal legal system. District Attorney Boudin, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Chesa Boudin: (01:24)
Thanks so much. It's great to be with you Angela
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:27)
In 2018 Cornell university released a report showing that almost half of Americans are related to someone who has spent time in jail or prison, making the conversation about transforming the criminal legal system, even more urgent. How did we get here to having so many people behind bars in America?
Chesa Boudin: (01:46)
For decades, we've focused really narrowly and without any empirical evidence to suggest that it's good policy on tough-on-crime approaches; on approaches that focus on being tough rather than being smart; on approaches to responding to crime and all manner of social problems from drug addiction to mental illness on a "lock them up and throw away the key mentality". And after decades and decades of doing the same failed things, we're finally realizing that it is devastating our communities, our families, and it's not making us safer.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (02:21)
What role do you think prosecutors have played in this country's mass incarceration problem?
Chesa Boudin: (02:27)
Prosecutors have been at the center of this problem. They've been the ones asking the courts for the sentences, lobbying the legislature for more power and discretion, and more punitive sentencing guidelines in opposing the kinds of reforms that thankfully we've begun to see take hold over the last five years.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (02:47)
In a recent New York Times op-ed earlier this year, you wrote quote "the failure of both Congress and state legislatures to respond to the murder of George Floyd with any meaningful action reminds us that our nation's attempts at reform can often amount to nothing. We need to look elsewhere for reform -- to local prosecutors." What role should prosecutors play to be able to transform the criminal legal system?
Chesa Boudin: (03:13)
Well, this is something we talk a lot about on the podcast I host in my office, it's called 'Chasing Justice'. At the end of the day, prosecutors are in a critical, in a uniquely powerful position to be a force for change and for positive change. Instead of doubling down on failed policies, like the war on drugs or an approach that dehumanizes people who are caught up in the criminal justice system, we need to start looking at root causes of crime. We need to think outside the box about solutions. We can graft that don't rely on incarceration of people who are presumptively innocent as a first resort.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (03:51)
But you know, when you say prosecutors are in a unique position, perhaps you could unpack that a little bit because a lot of people don't really know what prosecutors do and what makes their position so unique for addressing this challenge.
Chesa Boudin: (04:04)
What we do as elected district attorneys is make decisions every day about what charges to file and what sentences to seek when a conviction is secured. It's a powerful position because when police make an arrest, it's not the police who ultimately decide what charges are brought against the individual who has been arrested, it's prosecutors. And so we have the power to decide. For example, we are not going to prosecute simple drug possession. We believe that's a social and medical problem, that's better addressed through drug treatment, through safe consumption sites and through a public health lens. And instead we want to focus our law enforcement resources on serious and violent crime. That's entirely within the discretion of an elected official. And it's thankfully a change we're starting to see from coast to coast in jurisdictions like Boston and Philadelphia and San Francisco, where voters are demanding that limited law enforcement resources not be wasted on failed approaches to public health crises or to using jails as homeless shelters.
Media Clip: (05:11)
[music] In recent years, we've seen a wave of prosecutors and state attorneys being elected across the country. These people are trying to change things from the inside. Could you talk about the phenomenon within state and local politics?
Chesa Boudin: (05:36)
After decades of failed policies, the country finally got tired of doing something that didn't work and that cost us so much in terms of our local and state budgets, and in terms of the human and social costs. We've seen a movement growing of electing reform minded people to these critical positions of elected prosecutors or district attorneys or states attorneys. It's not a one size fits all approach. It's not that everyone who's part of the movement has the same policies or the same backgrounds. Different standards are needed in different jurisdictions for different political challenges and appetites. But as one of my friends and a candidate for district attorney in Queens last year said really well. It's really about electing people who are focused on decarceration, who understand that if we can break this country's addiction to jails and prisons, if we can find more effective and more humane interventions when people commit crime, and decrease the jail and prison population in the process, we will actually build long-term safety. That's what I've tried to do in San Francisco. And what so many other prosecutors in this national movement are doing in different ways in their own jurisdictions.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (06:51)
Could you tell us a little bit more about what some of the concrete examples are of the changes that are being proposed by some of this new wave of prosecutors?
Chesa Boudin: (07:00)
Absolutely. And again, it does depend on the local jurisdiction, but one example is a commitment from many of us not to seek the death penalty. Another is an openness to recognize that our offices have historically been complicit in racial injustice and in covering up police misconduct or in securing wrongful convictions. So a trademark of many of our offices is a unit or a process for looking backwards at old convictions. And considering whether innocent people are wrongly incarcerated, or whether people who may be guilty were given sentences that are unduly harsh, as well as to have units that specifically investigate and prosecute police misconduct are some of the trademarks of our, uh, movement. Others include, uh, a public health approach to mental illness and the drug addiction epidemic that is responsible for such a high percentage of the kinds of cases that police ask us to prosecute criminally.
Media Clip: (08:02)
San Francisco County district attorney Chesa Boudin says he has seen firsthand how the prison system has failed those incarcerated. And he wants to create change.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (08:12)
In September, you and several top prosecutors in the Bay joined forces to create a first of its kind law enforcement association focused on criminal justice reform. Can you tell us more about this and what you're hoping to accomplish?
Chesa Boudin: (08:26)
Historically, law enforcement unions and prosecutor associations have opposed any criminal justice reform, no matter how humane or compassionate, no matter how much it's rooted in data that shows we can decrease recidivism. We wanted to have an association of law enforcement leaders who are elected to serve the people and who aren't simply trying to promote tough on crime policies or policies that will increase the budget for our unions. We want to focus on what actually builds safety for the people we represent. And we want to make sure we have a seat at the table on behalf of law enforcement in Sacramento, when state laws are being proposed. We want to make sure we have a seat at the table when media is looking for a law enforcement voice to talk about proposed reforms. So I'm really excited to be a founding member of the California Alliance of Prosecutors, and to really begin that conversation of redefining public safety and victims rights, as more than just vengeance and retribution, but rooted in healing and restoration and rehabilitation.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (09:33)
District Attorney Boudin, you grew up in a family where both of your parents were part of the Weather Underground, a radical left wing group in the seventies that saw peaceful protest as ineffective and who were criticized for the use of violence as a means to protest the Vietnam War and the targeting of black revolutionaries by police and the FBI.
Media Clip: (09:54)
Calling themselves members of the Weather Underground last night planted bombed in federal office buildings in Washington...
Angela Glover Blackwell: (10:00)
Both of your parents serve long prison sentences for their involvement in the Weather Underground. Could you talk about your childhood, your parents and how all of that shaped you and your journey to become a district attorney?
Chesa Boudin: (10:12)
When I was an infant, my parents left me at the babysitter and they never came back. That day, they drove the getaway car in an armed robbery that tragically left three men dead. Two of those men were police officers. As a result of their role, even though they were unarmed, my mother ended up serving 22 years in prison. My father is still incarcerated today and he may never get out. My earliest memories are going through metal detectors and steel gates just to give my parents a hug. Years of prison visits, now decades of prison visits have taught me how profoundly failed our approach to criminal justice is.
Media Clip: (10:52)
Francisco County District Attorney Chesa Boudin says he has seen firsthand how the prison system has failed those incarcerated. And he wants to create change.
Chesa Boudin: (11:02)
We're not healing the harm that crime victims suffer. We're not rehabilitating the people convicted of crimes. We're bankrupting our government in the process, and we're all losing a little bit of our humanity because of the failings of our system of mass incarceration. It led me to want to work, to fight against mass incarceration. It's why after law school, I decided to become a public defender, but I came to realize that I couldn't change this failed system. Just litigating one case at a time. We needed systemic change. We needed a systemic radical reform and a new approach to public safety. The housing affordability crisis, the climate emergency, the opioid epidemic, the mental health emergency that plays out on our streets every single day. Those were problems that for far too long have been dumped on law enforcement. And that had been dealt with simply by locking people up for longer and longer, rather than getting at the root causes and focusing on healing. [music] I know that we can be more compassionate and in the process, more effective.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (12:16)
Coming up on Radical Imagination, we continue the conversation with San Francisco's District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Stay with us more when we come back. [Music]
Chesa Boudin: (12:39)
And we're back with District Attorney, Chesa Boudin.
Media Clip: (12:42)
The hotly contested race for San Francisco's next district attorney tonight, Chesa Boudin leads Susie Loftus by more than 2,400 votes with only 1200 left to be counted. Live in San Francisco tonight with more on Boudin's big win. [Chesa Boudin] "We have a lot of work to do. We can celebrate tonight and tomorrow the hard work begins and I need, I need all of you to stay with me".
Angela Glover Blackwell: (13:06)
You became DA of San Francisco in January of 2020. Right as the pandemic began making headlines and not long before the historic protest, following the murder by the hands of the police of George Floyd. What was it like becoming the city's top prosecutor at this particular time in history?
Chesa Boudin: (13:25)
I never could have expected, uh, the year that we've had. 2020 has been a quite a year and just keeps getting, uh, more challenging and, and stranger -- feels like every month. And it's been devastating for many people who have lost their jobs, their homes, the lives of loved ones to COVID-19, to police violence this year. And my focus has been on trying to find a silver lining, is trying to create silver linings and opportunities for lasting change. Uh, I'm excited that crime is down over 20% this year, and we've reduced our jail population by about 40%. And we've been able to do those two things in tandem. In other words, a lot of folks who criticized my campaign agenda said, if you reduce the jail population, crime will go up. And this year we've shown that the opposite can be true. If we're intentional about how we release folks, if we have attention to re-entry planning, then we can drastically reduce our jail population, even as crime rates fall by historic margins. We've done that in San Francisco and I'm excited that other counties and jurisdictions around the country are following suit. It's a whole new world.
Media Clip: (14:38)
In San Francisco, the district attorney is making national news after announcing that he's rolling out his plan for no Money Bail. KDB's Christian Captain tells us the Chesa Boudin says, 'This is about fairness.'.
Chesa Boudin: (14:51)
One of the first things I did after taking office was make San Francisco, the first jurisdiction in the country, to eliminate the use of Money Bail across the board by my prosecutors. We are not allowing our lawyers to ever ask the court to put a monetary condition on freedom. We also launched a diversion program for primary caregiver parents. One of the lessons I learned from all those years of visiting my parents in prison is that we're actually destroying families and creating an intergenerational cycle of incarceration that makes us all less safe in the long-term. And rather than having parents or primary caregivers incarcerated, I want them when they're able to do so, to be home taking care of their kids. And so when we have, uh, parents charged with non-violent crimes in San Francisco, they're given the opportunity to engage with parenting classes and other, uh, intense, structured programming. And if they succeed after as much as two years of programming, they can earn a dismissal of their charges. It keeps our families together. It keeps our communities safer. We also implemented a policy that declines to call as witnesses, police officers, who have a history of serious misconduct. If, if we do not, um, have a trust in the law enforcement officers that are doing investigations underlying our criminal cases. And how can we ask a jury to trust the evidence we present to them?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (16:18)
Another thing that you've done, which you alluded to earlier, is to create a unit to review cases and look for wrongful convictions. That seems so important because very often when things change for the better, we leave so many people languishing in the misdeeds of the past.
Chesa Boudin: (16:35)
Well, we're only just getting started. So we've got a really distinguished panel: a retired judge and forensic experts and law professors and others who are working as an aid to our office. Looking at these cases and then making recommendations directly to me. And I look forward to seeing what they come up with. And I remain very open to the possibility that there may be people in state prison who were wrongfully convicted out of San Francisco County. And if so, the interest of justice and my ethical obligation requires that we right that wrong.
Media Clip: (17:08)
When a gang member commits a violent crime, shouldn't they go to prison for as long as the law allows? Chesa Boudin said he wouldn't seek maximum sentences as district attorney, even for murder.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (17:22)
When you were running for DA, the San Francisco Police Officer's Association spent more than $650,000 to defeat you, sending mailers to voters and stating that your [quote] 'reckless policies would cost lives' [unquote].
Chesa Boudin: (17:37)
Police unions spend very heavily on local elections on state elections. And they're extremely influential even when their views are entirely out of touch with the values of local voters as is the case in San Francisco. And even when the policies they advocate have been proven over and over again, to fail at any of their legitimate goals. We know for example, that having a police go out and make arrests on street corners in San Francisco for people with just a couple of grams of drugs is a totally ineffective way to deal with the real problems that the drug addiction crisis in this country presents. And yet it's what the police want to do. They get overtime, it's safe, it's easy. Police unions are dedicated to opposing anything that increases transparency or accountability for their members. And it's really important to understand that the reason we have so much impunity, the reason that police officers all across this country literally get away with murder is because police unions fought to make it that way. If we want change, if we want equal enforcement of the law, if we want transparency in law enforcement and racial justice, then we need to hold police unions accountable, and we need to get their money out of our election
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:05)
As "abolish police" grow louder. A handful of prominent organizations have come up with a set of abolitionist principles and campaign strategies to envision a future without prosecutors who are seen as being tasked to distribute punishment within an unequal and a violent society. What's your take on this?
Chesa Boudin: (19:28)
I think it's always exciting as a thought process to imagine a world that a healthier, safer place for all of us to imagine a world where we don't need some of the things that we do need today. And I certainly appreciate the frustration and cynicism with our current legal system. Um, and especially with prosecutors and police who bear such a heavy responsibility for our current mass incarceration epidemic; for ignoring victims, treating them as pieces of evidence and for engaging in fear-mongering through dishonest reports about statistics and what makes us safer. But it's also true that prosecutors have tremendous power. As I've talked about in my New York Times Opinion, editorial, I invite anyone who's skeptical of district attorney's offices as a locus for change to come take a look at our office and what we've done in less than a year, there are tremendous opportunities for putting the justice back in the criminal justice system. And that's what we're trying to do in San Francisco, every single day.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (20:30)
District Attorney Boudin. Are you hopeful about the future?
Chesa Boudin: (20:33)
Absolutely. It's not that I don't have my fears or my concerns or my doubts, especially in this moment in American political history and with what we see unfolding on the national level, uh, the dishonesty, the cynicism, uh, the thievery from people we're supposed to trust to lead our country. Um, but I fundamentally an optimist and it's because I believe in people and our capacity for change.
Chesa Boudin: (21:02)
A lot of folks approach political work as the art of compromise, uh, of, of bringing people together around things that we know we can accomplish. I approach it differently. I think it's the art of making possible tomorrow that, which we can't even imagine today. And this year has been a perfect example of how we can do that. When we have people power. When we have a mass movement, when we have consciousness around some of these issues like racial injustice and police accountability. We have seen just in this year, 20, 20 so many things that would have been unthinkable a year ago, become mainstream and become demands by millions of people across the country.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (21:44)
Um, this is a tough time that we're in right now, but I must say I'm feeling hopeful in this moment, because so much is on the table. And so many people that are in positions like you, who can actually make a difference in their using that power and their radical imaginations, to be able to put the best ideas on the table and move forward. I find that people like you often bring a super power. District Attorney Boudin. What's your super power?
Chesa Boudin: (22:12)
Oh, that is so kind and flattering. And, uh, you, gosh, I wish I could say I have a super power, but really it's just about hard work and compassion. At the end of the day, I try to remember that every decision I make, you know, whether it be a new policy or a decision in a particular case, there's real people whose, whose lives are impacted by those decisions. It's humbling. And it keeps me grounded in the really difficult work that we do every day.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (22:40)
Thank you for talking with us.
Chesa Boudin: (22:43)
My pleasure. Thank you so much.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (22:46)
Chesa Boudin is district attorney of San Francisco, California. We don't usually talk about reform on this program. Instead we focus on radical transformation. America systems and institutions are doing exactly what they were designed to do: exclude and oppress Black people, indigenous people, Brown people, and all people of color. Small fixes and incremental improvements. Won't bring about the change we need. But today I had the pleasure of talking with Chesa Boudin, who is a reformer he's making reforms that will improve the lives of many caught in the criminal legal system. He is challenging us to consider whether there is a place for reform along the way to transformation. To often reform simply perpetuates the status quo. But maybe if reforms are structured with a different intention and with radical imagination, they can change mindsets about what's possible and lead to a society that isn't just marginally better, but transformed.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (23:58)
Radical Imagination was produced by the Futuro Studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Antonia Cereijido, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, Jeanne Montalvo, Julia Caruso, Leah Shaw, Lita Hollowell, and Sam Bernitz. The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian, Milly Hawk Daniel, and Eugene Chan. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. This is the last episode of our second season, but please be on the lookout for more in the next season of Radical Imagination. And in the meantime, you can find us online at RadicalImagination.us, and remember to subscribe and share.