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Recall Drives Against CA DA's Show How Crime Rates Stymie Reform

In liberal San Francisco and Los Angeles, serious efforts are under way to recall left-leaning district attorneys who have not even completed their first term. San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin and L.A.’s George Gascón each ran for office on confronting structural racial inequities, reducing incarceration, and toughening accountability for law enforcement. Their victories in 2019 and 2020 represented landmark moments in the “progressive prosecutor” movement. San Francisco opponents have collected enough signatures to force a June 7 recall election for Boudin that political professionals doubt he can survive. While Gascón’s situation isn’t quite so dire, opponents have collected hundreds of thousands of signatures toward the 566,857 they need by July 6 to prompt a recall election against him. Polls show substantial disapproval, The Atlantic reports.

The drives to remove both men have drawn energy from local controversies, but the similarities far outweigh the differences. Those similarities underline the structural challenges confronting the push for criminal-justice reform that exploded into massive protests after the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Reformers across the U.S. have made the case that a more equitable system will produce a safer community reducing the number of repeat offenders hardened by excessive incarceration. The recalls show how vulnerable those arguments are to short-term changes in the crime rate. The successes of Boudin and Gascón’s approach—as measured by people who stay out of prison and use the opportunity to stabilize their lives—are much less visible than the failures: offenders who, when given that chance, commit more crimes. Boudin and Gascón have been battered by public anxiety about immediate trends in safety, even if the causes extend far beyond the policies of the D.A.’s office, and even if crime also is increasing in places with hard-line police chiefs and district attorneys. To reform advocates, the backlash testifies to the depth of resistance to change in almost every corner of the criminal-justice system, including police departments and D.A. offices, where career prosecutors have taken a stunningly public role in support of each recall.


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