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Chesa Boudin, a former public defender, is San Francisco's new top prosecutor

When Chesa Boudin learned he had won a tight race to become San Francisco’s new district attorney, he was flying home from a visit with his father at a prison in upstate New York.

Boudin was just 14 months old when his left-wing activist parents were incarcerated for their role in an armed robbery that killed three men. His close-up view of the criminal justice system shaped his career as a public defender who vowed to make sweeping reforms if elected to serve as the city’s top prosecutor.

He entered the race as the underdog but wound up with more votes than interim Dist. Atty. Suzy Loftus, who had the backing of California’s Democratic establishment. After several days of ballot counting, Boudin had 36% of the vote to Loftus’ 31%. (Two other candidates split the remainder of the vote.)

By electing Boudin, San Francisco voters added to a nationwide wave of victories by D.A. candidates who promised a radical departure from the punitive, law-and-order policies of the past.

Boudin described his victory as a bellwether in the liberal movement to refocus the criminal justice system on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

“It sends a pretty loud and clear message that the war on drugs and the tough-on-crime policies and rhetoric of the 1990s and early 2000s are on their way out,” Boudin said from his home in the city’s Outer Sunset neighborhood. “It shows that there’s a massive thirst for change.”

Loftus, who had received endorsements from Mayor London Breed, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state’s two U.S. senators, congratulated Boudin in a tweet that pledged cooperation with her onetime opponent.

“I didn’t win the race — but we won the support of so many San Franciscans who are demanding that our city work more effectively together to build safety,” she tweeted.

In recent years, voters across the country have embraced candidates intent on reducing prison terms, reforming bail practices and being more judicious about bringing charges against defendants, according to the Vera Institute for Justice, a nonprofit criminal justice organization based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

In 2018, reform-minded district attorney candidates were elected in Texas, Missouri, Alabama, North Carolina and Maine, according to the institute. This year, candidates in Mississippi and Virginia joined the list.

Scott Colom said that when he was campaigning in Mississippi’s Circuit Court District 16, he was initially surprised at how readily people agreed with his view that too many people with drug and mental health issues were being sent to prison.

“It’s coming from the voters,” said Colom, who won his election. “As more and more candidates win, more and more people are being courageous to run, and you’re starting to see more and more public defenders run for district attorney. That’s traditionally unheard of, that people with that type of background would switch over to that side.”

With nearly half of Americans related to someone who has been jailed or imprisoned, criminal justice reform has become increasingly important to voters, regardless of party lines.

“What excites me is not just that we’re getting prosecutors elected who run on these reform platforms, but that there’s a larger understanding as a nation that we can’t continue down this path” of mass incarceration, said Jamila Hodge, a project director at the Vera Institute. A former prosecutor, Hodge now helps district attorneys turn their reform-minded campaign platforms into policies once they’re elected.

In California, such candidates have had mixed results at the polls. Last year, Diana Becton became the first black person and woman to lead the Contra Costa district attorney’s office after promising to focus on bail reform and restorative justice. But candidates promising reforms in Alameda, Sacramento and San Diego counties failed to unseat incumbents.

Boudin’s remarkable biography appeared to play to his advantage. His parents were members of the radical leftist group Weather Underground and began serving their sentences in the mid-1980s. His mother was released in 2003, and his father could remain behind bars for the rest of his life.

Boudin, 39, said he thinks that real-life experience resonated with the city’s voters.

“It made them appreciate that this is not just a kind of opportunity for political gain or power — this is a life journey for me,” he said. “This is something I’ve been affected by, thinking about, working on pretty much my entire life, and not something I got interested in in law school.”

Though he wasn’t the favored candidate of California’s political establishment, Boudin received important endorsements from prominent liberal politicians and prosecutors from outside the state, including Chicago Dist. Atty. Kim Foxx, Philadelphia Dist. Atty. Lawrence Krasner and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

The presidential candidate tweeted a congratulations on Boudin’s “historic victory,” writing that “now is the moment to fundamentally transform our racist and broken criminal justice system by ending mass incarceration, the failed war on drugs and the criminalization of poverty.”

Boudin said he plans to do a lot of listening and intends to establish a restorative justice program for crime victims.

The Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School graduate said he expects more like-minded prosecutors will be elected in other American cities in 2020.

The desire for change “is not limited to San Francisco,” he said.

“I think people understand that the massive amount of money we’re spending on punishment is not making us safer and is really destroying our collective humanity in ways that are profound and far-reaching and deep seated,” Boudin said.

The political environment of San Francisco is different than other cities, said Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University.

It is so thoroughly blue that it has long elected liberal Democrats as district attorneys. That includes George Gascón, who abruptly quit as the city’s district attorney last month to run for the same office in Los Angeles County.

“What this election shows is that voters are not scared off by candidates who go even farther to the left of liberal Democrats to propose pretty radical change to the way the criminal justice system works,” McDaniel said. “It’s a continuation of something we’ve seen in San Francisco for a couple of decades, but we’ve seen it pick up steam nationwide.”

McDaniel said the real test will be whether candidates like Boudin can carry out the sweeping reforms they’ve pledged.

“Will they get buy-in from the rank-and-file workers in the criminal justice system, the D.A.s, the sheriff?” he said. “That is not something that’s guaranteed.”

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