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Progressive Prosecutors Get More Pushback Than Ever


Once again, a California Democrat complains that Republicans and big-money donors are trying to overturn the will of the voters by funding a multimillion-dollar recall campaign. That framing worked for Gov. Gavin Newsom last fall, when he survived a recall attempt. Things might play out differently for San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who faces a recall vote next Tuesday, reports Governing.


Various groups — including a Republican billionaire, tech investors and realtors — have poured millions of dollars into the effort to drive him from office. “We’re not dealing with a grass-roots movement,” Boudin complained. “We’re dealing with a small number of wealthy individuals, many of whom are national Republican major donors.”


Boudin points out that crime overall has dropped on his watch and remains lower than most other major cities. Still, there are enough high-profile crimes — including dramatic rises in car theft, highly publicized shoplifting and, most importantly, homicides — to make him vulnerable. Polls suggest voters are ready to turn him out.


Boudin is part of a generation of progressive prosecutors who see their role not just as sending offenders to prison, but addressing the underlying roots of crime. As crime rates — particularly homicides — have shot up since the start of the pandemic, their approach has come under increasing attack.


“The crime rate of course is going to increase when you’re not doing the basic blocking and tackling of prosecuting crimes," says Zack Smith of the Heritage Foundation. “It creates a culture of lawlessness in many of these cities, and the result is what we’re seeing, an increase in crime.”


There are still plenty of traditional prosecutors who measure success by the sheer number of rapists and murderers they put away. An increasing number of counties have elected prosecutors who aim not only to fight crime but avoid contributing to mass incarceration, for instance by not prosecuting low-level drug offenses.


Progressive prosecutors, elected in jurisdictions including Boston, Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia and St. Louis, have all encountered pushback. Police unions invariably complain about their approach, while some have seen career prosecutors resign. In Boudin’s case, dozens of prosecutors have either quit or been fired, with some joining the recall campaign against him.


A sizable cohort of progressive prosecutors were elected in 2016, and many more have taken office in the years since. Boudin was first elected in 2019. A number of them had financial support from George Soros, the liberal billionaire who has championed criminal justice reform.


Their priorities haven’t all been exactly the same, but broadly speaking they have sought to avoid contributing to mass incarceration when they can, saving their prosecutorial zeal for the most violent offenders. They’ve sought to divert drug offenders into treatment programs, refused to prosecute small-dollar thefts and not asked for cash bail from many poor defendants. Some refuse to seek the death penalty.


With crime rates going up nationally, the chorus of complaints against those Smith calls “rogue prosecutors” has grown. Homicides are up all over, not just in liberal cities.


In fact, the pandemic-era murder rate has increased far more in red states that supported Donald Trump in 2020 than blue states that voted for Joe Biden. Crime has also increased in cities that are home to traditional “tough on crime” prosecutors, including Oakland, directly across the bay from San Francisco.

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