The Atlantic: Why California Wants to Recall Its Most Progressive Prosecutors

Criminal-justice reform takes time, but voters might be running out of patience.

By Ronald Brownstein

San Francisco and Los Angeles are two of America’s most liberal large counties. Democrats dominate their elected offices up and down the ballot. Yet in both places, serious efforts are underway 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, respectively, represented landmark moments in the nationwide “progressive prosecutor” movement. But in San Francisco, opponents have already collected enough signatures to force a June 7 recall election for Boudin that most local political professionals doubt he can survive. While Gascón’s situation isn’t quite as dire, opponents say they have collected hundreds of thousands of signatures toward the 566,857 they need by July 6 to prompt a recall election against him. And polls show substantial disapproval of his performance.

The drives to remove both men have drawn energy from local controversies specific to each city. But the similarities in these twin struggles far outweigh the differences. And those similarities underline the structural challenges confronting the broader push for criminal-justice reform that exploded into massive public protests after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

Reformers in cities across the country have made the case that a more equitable system will produce a safer community over time by reducing the number of repeat offenders hardened by excessive incarceration. But 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 individuals who are kept out of prison and use the opportunity to stabilize their lives—are inherently much less visible than the failures: offenders who, when given that chance, commit more crimes. While the impact of Boudin’s and Gascón’s tenures might take years to assess fairly, both men have been battered by public anxiety about immediate trends in safety and disorder—even if the causes, most experts agree, extend far beyond the policies of the D.A.’s office, and even if crime rates are also increasing in communities 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. More ominously, the prospect that voters might turn on Boudin and Gascón has some reformers wondering whether the millions of people who marched in the streets in 2020 really meant what they said when they called for a fairer justice system.

“It’s almost as if the summer of reckoning in 2020 has never happened,” says Lara Bazelon, a University of San Francisco law professor who serves on a commission Boudin established to review possibly wrongful earlier convictions by his office. “People are happy to be progressive and happy to be anti-racist as long as their bike doesn’t get stolen, or they don’t watch a viral video of a theft at Walgreens. Once that happens, or they feel vulnerable in some way, they throw out the high-minded ideals that made them vote for a reformer.”

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