By Paula Lehman-Ewing
The five candidates in this year's San Francisco district attorney election agree on a couple things: The moment is unique and the system is broken.
Their opinions on why the moment is unique and how to fix the criminal justice system in their city is where their unity begins to fracture.
The undisputed unique element of the forthcoming ballot decision is for the first time in 100 years there is no incumbent, with District Attorney George Gascon announcing in October he would not seek reelection.
But some candidates see a sea change in how state and federal legislatures are re-envisioning the criminal justice system and are running on promises to radically overhaul the role the city's prosecutor plays in that system.
"There's a real appetite on the moderate and progressive side in San Francisco for change," said Leif M. Dautch, a California deputy attorney general who entered the race last summer. "You've seen a wave of more reform-minded DAs in places like Philadelphia and Houston, and people are paying attention to that."
Dautch sees a need to "take this ocean liner and change directions" in terms of the top prosecutorial role. He and Chesa Boudin, a deputy public defender in. San Francisco seeking the DA'.s post, say they wiU change strategy from high conviction rates to reducing mass incarceration through diversion and treatment plans.
Boudin's supporters received an email with the subject "End Mass Incarceration," a seemingly contradictory message coming from someone running to be the city's top prosecutor.
Boudin doesn't think so.
"Most public commentators focus on convictions rates as a-key metric to see if a prosecutor is doing a good job, but that's misleading if everyone you commit goes out and commits a new crime," Boudin said. He referred to a December 2018 Board of Supervisors report that found the nearly 50,000 county jail bookings made over a three-year period only represented some 21,000 people, indicating multiple bookings for many of the same individuals.
"If there are ways to be creative about prosecuting people that reduces recidivism rates we should do that. Reentry needs to be at the forefront of the conversation, and right now it's not even an afterthought," Boudin said.
Central to Boudin's vision for the district attorney's office is using the prosecutorial function for the city's most serious, violent crimes and using prosecutorial leverage, such as diversion programs and deferred judgment, on lesser offenses.
The purpose, he said, would· be to identify the root causes of acts like burglary for each defendant and, rather than bring them to trial, give them incentives to seek treatment that may reduce their chances of committing another crime.
The same Board of Supervisors report showed 85 percent of bookings in San Francisco over the last three years involved people with mental illness, drug addiction or both. Those defendants, Boudin alleges, are being kept at enormous taxpayer expense at facilities that exacerbate their illnesses and ultimately fail to increase public safety, as many will commit new crimes upon release.
Attorney Joseph Alioto Veronese is also hoping to fill the top prosecutor spot but says approaches like Boudin's will likely make the broken system worse. Far from refocusing on conviction rates1 Veronese said prosecutors need to have a "rah-rah" approach to winning cases to maintain a "healthy opposing dichotomy between the prosecutor's office and the public defender's office."
Veronese believes some of the recent changes to the criminal justice system are the cause of many problems the progressive candidates complain about. For example, unlike the majority of his opponents, Veronese is against Proposition 47, which converted many allegedly nonviolent offenses, such as drug and property crimes, from felonies to misdemeanors.
He sees the revision to the penal code as a forfeiture of prosecutorial leverage without which criminals will reoffend with impunity not because they were denied treatment but because their crimes were not treated as crimes at all.
Veronese said progressive values have a place in the district attorney's office, but it is in the sentencing phase, not in the initial decision whether or not to charge someone with a crime.
"There's been a total breakdown in the criminal justice system, and laws are not being enforced," Veronese said. "Someone can defecate on your front steps, and the public expects nothing to be done about it because at some point it stops being a crime. If the DA doesn't enforce it, it's not crime, and that's professional negligence."
Nancy H. Tung, an Alameda County deputy district attorney, is also not shying away from the need for incarceration. She believes in the tidal wave of changes to the criminal justice system, victims of crimes have been largely overlooked.
"The idea that you come in and upend the system and call yourself a progressive by not prosecuting certain crimes anymore is a fallacy," said Tung, who was a deputy in the San Francisco County district attorney's office for 11 years. "Progressivism means we protect the most vulnerable people in our communities, and we've completely failed to do that in San Francisco."
In terms of forgetting victims of crimes, Boudin said it would be nearly impossible as he considers himself to be one.
As a young child Boudin was left with a babysitter one afternoon, and his parents never returned. Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert were members of the radical political group the Weather Underground and went to prison for a 1981 armored car robbery that ended in a triple murder. Boudin said the term "victims of crime" applies to more people than his more conservative opponents may realize.
Bridging the gap somewhat is the fifth candidate, Suzanne T. Loftus, a longtime, high-level prosecutor who believes some of San Francisco's prosecutorial practices should be strengthened while others are outdated.
Loftus, who worked in the district attorney's office when now-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris was at the helm, said having neighborhood-based prosecutors concentrating resources in alternative courts like drug and young adult is where the city needs to find its balance.
"One great thing George [Gascon] did was he brought in an alternative sentencing planner, someone from the community who can look at each case and decide what it will take to make sure they do not reoffend,” Loftus said. “We always have the option to incarcerate, but it's one of the highest-cost options with one of the highest failure rates. There are different approaches to prosecuting, and it should be grounded in community."
It's possible more candidates will appear on the November ballot as the deadline to file papers is Aug. 9.