Chesa Boudin Wants to Transform San Francisco’s Criminal Justice System

Chesa Boudin

Chesa Boudin is a socialist and the child of revolutionaries. Now he’s running for San Francisco district attorney on a platform of ending cash bail and undoing the war on drugs.

Chesa Boudin, date unknown.

Interview by
Meagan Day

In the race for San Francisco District Attorney, Chesa Boudin’s opponents are all classic candidates for the job.

Nancy Tung is a career prosecutor whose campaign focuses on a tough-on-crime approach to gun violence, at a time when gun crime in the city is historically low. Leif Dautch has progressive rhetoric, coupled with a traditional prosecution and law enforcement background and a raft of endorsements from moderate politicians. And Suzy Loftus is an establishment law-and-order Democrat who once participated in an effort to award medals of honor to police officers who were under investigation for brutality.

Boudin is the only candidate who has ever defended a person accused of a crime.

He also might be the only candidate who’s ever visited a loved one behind bars: his parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, were arrested in connection with a fatal armed robbery when he was a baby. Boudin was raised by his parents’ friends, former Weather Underground members Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Boudin about his vision for criminal justice reform, how his family history and childhood experiences shaped his political worldview, and the role of democracy in building a mass movement to end economic and racial inequality.

Meagan Day

When Kamala Harris announced her campaign for president, she painted herself as a former “progressive prosecutor” — not quite accurate if you look at her record as District Attorney of San Francisco or Attorney General of California.

Plenty of people challenged her on that, which I think is fair, but I also saw some on the Left go a step further and say there’s no such thing as a progressive prosecutor at all. Do you think that’s true?

Chesa Boudin

I wouldn’t be running to be San Francisco’s next district attorney if I didn’t believe it were possible to do the job in a way that’s consistent with my values, in a way that makes the city safer for all of its residents, not just for some of its residents, and in a way that focuses on treating the root causes of crime and on decarceration.

I think district attorney is a tremendously important and powerful political position from which to do those things. And I think that in running and winning this race, I can be part of a broader national moment that is really testing the boundaries of what’s possible through that office, which for far too long has been abandoned to the most reactionary conservative forces in our society.

There is a movement around the country of progressives running to be district attorneys. A lot of people running today, including myself, wouldn’t have considered running five or ten years ago, because of the way that the office was viewed and the assumed limits of what could be accomplished, and frankly because of the public consciousness about criminal justice reform.

This is the first time in probably fifty years or more that there’s been a broad national consensus that the criminal justice system is broken. Without getting into who has a more radical analysis of the system, Republicans and Democrats agree that what we’re doing is crazy, and that creates space for meaningful change.

My view is that if you want to have that meaningful change, it’s not enough to just pass the kind of legislation that we saw in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, the First Step Act. That law really is a step in the right direction, in terms of providing mechanisms for early release for nonviolent offenders, but it doesn’t go far enough.

That said, it is a bellwether for the direction the country is headed. If that legislation possible under this administration, under this Senate, think about what we can do at a local level in a place like San Francisco.

Our system of mass incarceration is grossly disproportionate to our problem with crime and public safety. In fact, the way we arrest and lock people up actually makes us less safe, creates more crime. For too long politicians have falsely equated victims’ rights and public safety with conviction rates and length of sentence without any regard for recidivism rates or the social and economic cost of locking people up.

It’s not a coincidence that the prison population exploded around the same time as working communities, black and brown communities were organizing in the Civil Rights Movement and against the war in Vietnam. Folks like Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, and Christian Parenti have excellent books contextualizing the prison boom as repressive response to social changes

Meagan Day

Bernie Sanders recently proposed that all currently and formerly incarcerated people, including convicted felons, should be allowed to vote. The backlash to that has been intense, with many people implying that we’d be going soft on violent crime — as though felony disenfranchisement were a proven deterrent for rape or murder.

The goal of crime deterrence seems, in this case and many others, subordinate to the goal of punishment. Could you talk a little about this punitive outlook and how it pervades our criminal justice system?

Chesa Boudin

I think our criminal justice system ought to be focused on treating the root causes of crime and on rehabilitation. Most states called their prison system a “department of corrections,” but the reality is there’s very little correcting that goes on in prison. And we know that empirically, because the recidivism rates are above two-thirds.

If you’re cynical, you could say that it’s because these people are incorrigible. And for some people, it may be true that we don’t have the skills or the resources to reorient their lives. But for most people, that’s not the case. If we as a society give them the right support and the right supervision and the right resources, then I believe that the overwhelming majority of people can live peacefully and productively with the rest of us.

But that’s not what our prison system does. It punishes people. And it punishes people in a way that teaches them to be institutionalized and dysfunctional in society. That’s why we see high recidivism rates. And that’s why we have a criminal justice system that by any measure is failing. It’s failing to prevent crime. It’s failing to honor victims’ rights. It’s failing to play a positive and productive role in our society at a time when we have very high racial disparities, not just in incarceration but in wealth inequality as well.

Meagan Day

You grew up with parents in prison, right?

Chesa Boudin

Yes. My parents were member of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground. They went underground after the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion in 1970 and stayed underground for many years.

In 1981, when I was fourteen months old, I was dropped at the babysitter, and my parents went out and participated in an armored car robbery that was organized by the Black Liberation Army.

Their role was to drive a switch car. They weren’t at the scene of the robbery. The getaway car drove the people who did the robbery to where my parents were waiting, and they were transferred into the back of a U-Haul type truck that my parents were driving. That truck was stopped at a roadblock before getting on the highway, and the people got out of the back of the car shooting. Two police officers were killed, and a security guard had already been killed at the scene of the robbery itself.

My mother got a twenty-year-to-life sentence and served twenty-two years. My father was given a seventy-five-to-life sentence, and is still incarcerated.

Meagan Day

Why was your father’s sentence so much harsher than your mother’s?

Chesa Boudin

There are a lot of factors. One of the primary factors is that my father went to trial and represented himself, and refused to recognize the authority of the court. He made himself absent from the court for much of the trial and didn’t contest any of the government’s evidence. And then he gave a closing speech about American imperialism.

My mother had lawyers. She didn’t testify against anybody, but she did defend herself and negotiate a plea deal in which two of the charges were dismissed.

Meagan Day

How did growing up with incarcerated parents impact your worldview?

Chesa Boudin

My earliest memories are of getting searched by prison guards, going through metal detectors, having my hand stamped with invisible ink, just to be able to touch my parents. I know I was having those experiences before I can even remember. And those experiences for me, and for the millions of kids who experience parental incarceration, had really profound impacts.

For me, like for so many kids, there was a stigma. There was a sense of shame and anger, a feeling of loss and abandonment, all of which I had to grapple with as a child in order to be able to focus my life on positive things — on school, on sports, and ultimately on fighting for progressive policy reforms and social justice.

That was a long process for me, and it was a process that required a tremendous amount of support that unfortunately most kids who deal with parental incarceration don’t have. Most kids don’t grow up in white upper-middle-class families, don’t have the benefit of private tutors and therapists and a private school.

I watched a lot of kids who I was friends with from the prison visiting room end up incarcerated, kids who I knew were just as smart as I was, had just as much potential as I did, but didn’t live in a environment with as many second chances or as many resources.

Meagan Day

Your parents remained activists behind bars, correct?

Chesa Boudin

Yes. My mom had written books even before being incarcerated. One of them, written in 1970, was called The Bust Book, a guide on what to do if you get stopped by police, sort of an early know-your-rights manifesto.

While in prison, my mom did a tremendous amount of work in different areas. She taught bilingual parenting classes. She took the lessons she learned from trying to parent me from a distance and coordinated classes for other mothers in Spanish and English, where they came up with creative ways to engage with their kids from behind the prison gates.

She also did a lot of work around literacy. Women in jails and prisons across the country have suffered from domestic violence, sexual assault, drug addiction, and worse in their lifetimes. She helped launch a literacy program to help make sure that at least while they were in prison, they could learn basic reading and writing to help them navigate the dangers outside.

And then, in the late 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was peaking, and 20 percent of women coming into the New York state prison were HIV positive. Again, not entirely surprising when you look at the trauma that so many women who we choose to incarcerate have been through in their lives, and the ways in which we failed to protect them from pimps, from injection drug use, and from domestic violence and sexual assault, all risk factors.

At that time, nobody really understood how HIV was transferred, and there was tremendous stigma and fear in society as a whole. In prison it was really heightened because of the forced contact, the living arrangements where people didn’t have control over hygiene or food. So my mom and other women in the prison started a peer education group around AIDS, taught by inmates with the support of civilian medical experts.

My dad also did AIDS organizing in prison, but it was much tougher for him. There’s only one maximum security women’s state prison in New York, and my mom was stuck there. But for my dad, whenever he started organizing, around AIDS or anything else, they moved him to a new prison.

Meagan Day

Who took care of you while your parents were in prison, and what political values were you exposed to growing up?

Chesa Boudin

Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn are my adoptive parents. They were in Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground as well, and were friends of my biological parents. They had turned themselves in after about ten years underground, just months before my biological parents were arrested. They raised me as one of their sons, and I ended up having four parents as a result.

They have spent their entire lives fighting for social justice. Bill spent his career working as an early childhood educator, and then got his PhD and has been one of the most widely recognized proponents of defending and preserving public schools against efforts to privatize. Bernardine had gone to law school before the Weather Underground, and went back to being a lawyer and founded the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern, which did work representing juveniles convicted of crimes and also advocating on behalf of juveniles in family custody disputes.

All four of my parents made mistakes along the way, mistakes involving the use of violence and armed struggle tactics that were really damaging. This is true in the case of my parents, looking at their lifetime in prison and the fact that three men were killed in their crime. I think Bill and Bernardine would also agree that they made plenty of mistakes along the way. But in my lifetime, the parents I’ve known have all been committed to principles of social justice and racial equality.

As a kid growing up, this meant that not only was I spending weekends going into prisons to see my parents, it also meant that at the dinner table every night we talked about politics. I was lucky to grow up in an environment where people cared about art and culture and politics and social justice, and where we were encouraged to think broadly about our role in the world and to recognize our privilege.

I think it was particularly useful for me to have the contrast between a normal upper-middle-class, white, private school life — going to bar mitzvahs on weekends, going skiing for spring break with my friends’ families — and then sometimes having to miss those bar mitzvahs and ski trips because I was visiting prison.

This has really been been a grounding and clarifying dynamic in my life, having one foot in the reality of being a privileged white male in America and the other shackled to the prison system because of something my parents did when I was in diapers.

Meagan Day

When you began work as a public defender, what particular injustices in the system jumped out at you?

Chesa Boudin

Our constitution promises equal justice under law but instead we have money bail. Money bail is a classic example of how the system is broken.

It allows the wealthy to purchase their freedom, no matter how dangerous or how high a risk they pose. Wealth buys the liberty and the presumption of innocence. Meanwhile, the poor languish behind bars even when they pose no risk and the evidence against them is weak.

Often prosecutors and judges coerce pleas from the poor by setting bail at unattainable amounts and then offering get out of jail plea deals. When the only way out of jail is to be wealthy, or to waive your constitutional rights, that’s not equal justice, and it undermines integrity of the entire system.

That’s why, over the last five years, I’ve led the fight against money bail in San Francisco. I’ve used impact litigation, policy innovation, and program development both at the public defender level and in partnership with pro-bono law firms and nonprofits to force judges to consider nonmonetary alternatives and individual ability to pay when determining conditions of release.

Meagan Day

San Francisco is undergoing rapid gentrification and working-class displacement. In your experience as a public defender, how does that process connect to the criminal justice system here?

Chesa Boudin

This is a fast-changing city. When there are fast changes, there are winners and losers. And perhaps not surprisingly in San Francisco, many of the winners are people who’ve come in from outside of the city, who don’t have strong ties to area, who’ve come in because of tech jobs or job servicing the tech industry. As a result, people who’ve lived here for generations are often unable to continue to afford living here.

There is a class dynamic to this, and there is a racial dynamic. San Francisco is now less than 4.5 percent black. Meanwhile, the San Francisco county jail is more than 50 percent black. It’s one of the most egregious racial disparities of any major city in the country.

That’s a reality that I see every day as a public defender. My clients are overwhelmingly black. They’re overwhelmingly poor. Thirty to forty percent are homeless or marginally housed. And many of those are people who historically had housing in San Francisco but have been pushed out by gentrification or by predatory landlords.

The city has been willing to invest so much money in punishing people for crimes of opportunity, crimes of poverty, the war on drugs. And yet there’s so little willingness to step up before crimes are committed and say, how can we help get you off the street and on your feet? How can we help protect your housing? How can we help protect your job? How can we help treat your mental illness with something other than solitary confinement in jail?

This isn’t unique to San Francisco. We see this all across the country. There are real class disparities. There are real problems with mental illness and drug addiction. And rather than treating those problems through social policy or through public health responses, we dump them on the criminal justice system.

It’s really sad, not just because of how destructive it is for the individual people who are caught up in the criminal justice system, but also because it’s such an ineffective way to treat these problems. Even if people don’t care about the the dignity or well-being of the individual people who are getting arrested and cycling through the jail — even putting aside their humanity and rights and their hopes and aspirations and their future — it’s not even working to make other people safer.

It actually makes us less safe to destabilize people’s lives this way, and it’s a tremendous waste of money and resources.

Meagan Day

Can you talk a little more about the current allocation of resources in the criminal justice system, and what you’d like to see instead?

Chesa Boudin

My message throughout is that I want to focus resources on serious and violent crimes. That doesn’t mean I want to send people to prison for life. It doesn’t mean that my goal is to increase the number of people who are behind bars. But it does mean that criminal justice resources should focus on the crimes that matter the most to victims, that have the longest impact and trauma for victims, and that have the highest stakes and consequences for people accused.

Right now, we’re doing the opposite in San Francisco. Two-thirds of jury trials are misdemeanors, quality-of-life offenses, crimes having to do with addiction, drug abuse, and homelessness.

We have the highest percentage of misdemeanor jury trials in any county in California. It’s actually kind of shocking to think about what a misallocation of resources that is.

Using a courtroom, a judge, a deputy district attorney, public defender, twelve to fourteen members of the community who are missing work for that whole week, all to decide whether somebody had malicious intent when they defaced property, is not a good use of resources.

We can do this much more efficiently and humanely through a restorative justice approach. This approach focuses on making the victim whole, on righting the wrong that was done. What I love about it is that it really gives victims a voice in the process. And empirically, when it’s done effectively, it actually is much more powerful in changing behavior than long periods of incarceration.

If it’s something small, you sit people across from one another, and one says, “I spray painted your garage and I’m sorry for that and I want to help make it right by repainting your garage.” If it’s something more serious, maybe the damage can’t be undone so simply. But that conversation, with expert counseling on both sides, is far more powerful to help victims move past trauma and far more powerful to help the people who committed crimes change their behavior going forward.

Meagan Day

From Bernie Sanders to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the recent socialist sweep of the Chicago City Council election, there’s been a surge in democratic-socialist electoral politics. There are even some Democratic Socialists of America members running for district attorney offices, including Audia Jones in Houston and Tiffany Cabán in New York City.

Do you consider your campaign to be part of that democratic-socialist electoral movement?

Chesa Boudin

I certainly do and I’m proud to say it.

When we were kids, socialism was a bad word associated with dictatorships. What we’ve seen over the last five or so years, in large part thanks to Bernie Sanders and all the grassroots organizing that’s gone into making him a national political leader, is that socialism has become something that even mainstream progressives identify with. It means things like universal health care, quality public education for everyone, great housing for everyone.

Those are values that are really mainstream today. Thirty years ago, even people who supported those values and policies to achieve them wouldn’t have been comfortable identifying them with socialism. That’s not the case anymore.

I’m a big believer in democratic process for social movements. One of the downsides is that it can be a painstaking, incremental process. But I think it’s the most powerful way to make effective change. If we are willing to do the difficult slow work of building movements, and the democratic work of entrusting those movements inform and drive political change, then we will end up in a better place than if a few people just tried to change things on their own.

Meagan Day

Why does this approach strike you as more promising than the armed struggle or insurrectionary strategy that landed your parents behind bars?

Chesa Boudin

It’s much longer lasting, it’s much more stable, and it’s much more democratic. There are lots of models for social change, and obviously there have been revolutions that have succeeded on their own terms using armed struggle in different moments in history, from the American Revolution to the Cuban Revolution.

But I think in the world we live in today, we have powerful tools at our fingertips for mobilizing people from all different communities. This puts us in a uniquely strong position to say that mass education, mass involvement, and mass empowerment are how we’re going to not just create change, but defend and continue to grow that change into a world that we’re all proud to be part of.

In my own first foray into electoral politics, I know that no matter how well-intentioned I am, no matter how clear-eyed I am and what my values and goals and principles are, the challenges after I win are going to be very significant. And I’m not going to be able to do it alone. I’m going to need organizers. I’m going to need political pressure from the movements.

All too often, people mobilize around an individual charismatic leader and then once that person gets elected, they go back to life as usual and stop paying attention. And unfortunately private interests, conservative groups, and corporations are still paying attention. They’re still putting political pressure on politicians, and there’s tremendous entrenched institutional pressure to defend the status quo. If you want change, it’s not enough to elect someone who promises change. You have to keep organizing for it and pushing the people who’ve been elected to do the right thing.

And it’s not just that my campaign needs movements. I also think of it as strengthening a movement for criminal justice reform here in San Francisco. I’m running to win and we’ve got a lot of momentum, and I think we can do a tremendous amount of good for the city and the country once we win. But I also know that by running a grassroots campaign, we’re getting people involved, we’re educating people on the issues, we’re pulling all the other candidates to the left, and we’re redefining the way people think about criminal justice and public safety.