Ending Mass Incarceration

The United States is addicted to incarceration.  We lock up more people than any other country in the history of the world.  Right now, there are 2.2 million people in our jails and prisons. Nearly 25% of them are presumed innocent—awaiting trial, not convicted of any crime, often held because they can’t afford a cash bail payment that would secure their release.

But even that massive number, 2.2 million, understates the problem: People are released from jails and prisons every day and others enter, so the number of people who are incarcerated in a given year is much higher.  There are nearly 11 million arrests annually—people deprived of liberty and separated from their home, work, family, and community. 4.5 million more people are on probation or parole, subject to random stops and searches by law enforcement, made to check in sometimes multiple times a week, and to submit to drug and alcohol testing and whatever other conditions a court might require.

Given these numbers, it’s no surprise that half of all Americans have an immediate family member who is either currently or formerly incarcerated.  And what does it mean when someone is incarcerated? Most fundamentally, of course, it means that they lose their freedom. They lose the ability to do what they want with their bodies and with their time.  They aren’t able to do the simple things that we all take for granted, the things that make life rich and joyful. Things like spending time with family and friends, giving someone a hug, enjoying a home-cooked meal or a night out, listening to music, watching a movie, and on and on.

But loss of liberty isn’t the only harm.  People who are incarcerated are subject to illness and disease.  They often receive inadequate medical care, and sometimes no medical care at all.  They are frequently subject to physical and sexual violence, whether at the hands of guards or other inmates.  They lose any meaningful income, and their families, often impoverished to begin with, are driven deeper into poverty as a result.  People who are incarcerated may lose their ties to the community; many lose friends and family. They become isolated, they suffer trauma.  They begin to lose their ability to function effectively anywhere but inside prison walls. And they become more likely to commit a crime than when they were arrested in the first place.


The Criminal Justice System Is Racist

The criminal justice system isn’t just massive and brutal, it’s also racist.  Some say that if we had the same incarceration rate nationally that we have in San Francisco, we would end mass incarceration.  That dangerous claim fails to recognize some important and disturbing truths about race in our city: San Francisco’s incarceration rate for African Americans is more than double the rates of Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Chicago.  It’s more than six times the rate of New York City. San Francisco’s Black population is less than 5%, but approximately 50% of the jail is Black.  

Black and Brown people in San Francisco are more likely to be harmed by the criminal justice system at every single stage of the process.  They’re more likely to be victims of crime, less likely to report crime and more likely to be stopped by the police. Once stopped, they’re more likely to be searched without their consent, despite being less likely to be found with contraband.  Black San Franciscans are over seven times more likely to be arrested than their White counterparts, and they are eleven times more likely to be booked into county jail. They are held in pretrial custody longer and are over ten times more likely to be convicted of a crime.  After conviction, Black defendants receive sentences that are, on average, 28% longer than those received by White defendants. Students of color are much more likely to be targets of zero-tolerance discipline in schools, facilitating a school-to-prison pipeline that often begins a lifetime of entanglement in the criminal justice system.

It’s a shocking set of statistics, building on centuries of systemic racism beginning with slavery and moving through Jim Crow, housing policy, and the Drug War.  And despite what status quo prosecutors and politicians in this race might think, it needs to change.


The Criminal Justice System Is Costly and Ineffective

A system that produces the harms just described would be intolerable no matter what.  But when we consider that the system is also immensely costly and entirely ineffective, it’s even more outrageous.

Nearly 10% of California’s state budget--around $15 billion--is devoted to incarceration.  That’s more than six times what we spend public education, and more than any other state in the nation.  And what are we getting for it? We get jails that function as our biggest mental health facilities--75% of people booked into San Francisco County Jail suffer from drug addiction, serious mental illness, or both, and the jail is the largest provider of mental health services in the city.  And we get astronomical failure rates, where 2/3 of people who are incarcerated will be re-arrested within three years of their release. Sure, they can end up serving more time. But then what? Then they cycle back into society, and our city becomes less safe for it. If any other system in our city had a failure rate that high, we would shut it down.  We’d bring in experts from across the country. We’d convene a commission to study the system and make recommendations. We’d look to new people for new solutions, not to people who have been a part of this broken system for years. The status quo isn’t working.


We Have a Historic Opportunity

This is a unique moment in American and San Francisco history.  For the first time in any of our lifetimes, there is a consensus that the criminal justice system is broken.  It’s broken for victims, who too often have nothing to show for the billions of dollars we spend on punishment; it’s broken for children, like Chesa Boudin, left behind when parents commit crimes; it’s broken for impacted communities; and it’s broken for the taxpayers who foot the bill for this failed system. There’s a reason why more than eight out of ten victims of crime in California want to move money out of prisons and into treatment, rehabilitation, and perhaps most importantly, prevention: They know that incarceration doesn’t work.  They know that it isn’t rehabilitative, and that it does nothing to make victims whole. They know that it makes people more likely, not less, to commit another crime, and that it therefore risks creating even more victims in the future.

It’s on the wave of this consensus that a new breed of prosecutor is taking office in cities across the country.  Larry Krasner in Philadelphia. Rachael Rollins in Boston. Kim Foxx in Chicago. And on and on. Each has approached the role of DA with the understanding that we need to fundamentally rethink the people and ideas we put into our DA’s offices if we want different results.  Each has adopted policies focusing on root causes of crime, decriminalizing poverty, and forcing the system to reckon with the true costs of mass incarceration. And each has produced results, from reducing the use of money bail without increasing recidivism or flight risk, to declining to prosecute certain charges like quality of life crimes, and reducing not just the total population of incarcerated people, but also the racial disparities that pervade the criminal justice system.

San Francisco can be next.  We’ve got the consensus that things need to change, and for the first time in 110 years, there is no incumbent District Attorney running for reelection. This is a historic opportunity, and Chesa Boudin is running for District Attorney because we need to seize this moment. 

What Do We Need To Do?

Ending mass incarceration won’t be easy.  And it’s not something that can be done entirely from the District Attorney’s Office.  Mass incarceration is rooted in our country’s racist and classist history, so to end it, we must address structures of our society beyond just our criminal justice system.  It will require action on things like housing, the economy, voting rights, and even healthcare. But there is so much that a District Attorney with bold ideas and a track record of systemic reform can do.  Boudin has developed a sweeping, visionary platform designed to end mass incarceration in San Francisco while making the city safer and more just for everyone.  Central to this plan are the following:

1. Implement Restorative Justice and Alternatives to Incarceration

Restorative justice is a survivor-centered alternative to the traditional prosecution model that attacks mass incarceration on two fronts.  First, through a process focused on active accountability rather than passive punishment, people who have harmed others are equipped with the tools they need to stop harming others in the future.  They may receive education, job training, counseling, substance use treatment, and more, and upon successfully completing the restorative justice process, may avoid prosecution. Second, victims of crime are centered in the process, rather than being used merely to secure a conviction, as in the traditional model.  This means that victims can actually be made whole, can process their trauma, and will see the person who harmed them meaningfully held accountable. This is essential to ending mass incarceration because most people who harm others were victims first. Boudin’s program is ground-breaking, going beyond anything offered by any other District Attorney’s Office in the country.  Every victim who wants to participate in restorative justice will have the right to do so, dramatically expanding the menu of options to help them heal while holding people who commit crimes accountable. (Full Policy)

2. End Money Bail

We can’t end mass incarceration until we end money bail, the system where innocent people can be kept in jail because they're poor, while wealthy people who are guilty and dangerous go free. Money bail drives mass incarceration by coercing people to plead guilty just so they can return home to their families, children, jobs, and communities. It’s an unjust, discriminatory system, and it’s time to end it. Over the last several years, Chesa Boudin has led San Francisco’s bail reform efforts and efforts across the state. As District Attorney, he vows never to ask for money bail that is tantamount to detention and will only ever seek detention of those defendants who present a serious risk of flight or danger to the community, and for whom there are no less restrictive alternatives. (Full Policy)

3. Establish a Wrongful Convictions Unit

Ending mass incarceration means ensuring that we never, ever send someone to prison for a crime they did not commit.  Wrongful convictions are a significant problem in the United States, and California is no exception. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 2,400 people have been freed from prison for crimes they did not commit.  Last year, there were 151 exonerations nationwide and six in California. Wrongful convictions destroy lives, undermine the integrity of the justice system, and contribute to mass incarceration. One wrongful conviction is too many. In California, there have been more than 200—and those are just the ones that we know of.

As District Attorney, Boudin will establish a Wrongful Conviction Unit (WCU) along with an Innocence Commission of experts to screen cases that should be reviewed by the WCU.  The WCU will review past convictions and make policy recommendations to avoid future wrongful convictions. By exposing and correcting past wrongful convictions, we not only restore the public trust in the justice system, we can also implement reforms to prevent innocent people from going to prison in the future. (Full Policy)

4. Protect Our Immigrant Communities

Immigrant detention is at a record high, with around 61,000 immigrants (including unaccompanied minors) detained on any given day.  It’s part of the Trump Administration’s savage and xenophobic war on immigrants, tearing families apart, undermining trust in law enforcement, and exposing hundreds of thousands of people a year to brutal and inhumane conditions in immigrant detention facilities across the country, including right here in Northern California. Though San Francisco is a sanctuary city, many members of our community face a litany of threats here based solely on their status as immigrants: They continue to face a risk of detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); they are at risk of deportation and face other collateral consequences if they are arrested or prosecuted; and they are victims of hate crimes, discrimination and abuse. We must protect all members of our community from these attacks.  

Boudin will protect our immigrant communities as part of his plan to end mass incarceration by implementing six major reforms: (1) Establish the first-ever Immigration Unit in the District Attorney’s Office; (2) Ensure that nobody faces collateral consequences based solely on their immigration status; (3) Investigate and prosecute crimes committed by ICE agents or other law enforcement agents who violate Sanctuary City or other laws; (4) Build trust with immigrant communities and enhance access to justice; (5) Help every single immigrant victim of every crime obtain a U-Visa; (6) Advocate for universal legal representation for people facing deportation. (Full Policy)

5. End Mass Supervision in San Francisco

Chesa Boudin is committed to ending not just mass incarceration in the United States, but also mass supervision--a system where nationally 4.5 million people, disproportionately people of color, are on probation or parole. Boudin will work to ensure that community supervision is used only when necessary and only for as long as is needed to protect public safety and improve the outcomes of people who have committed a crime.  

Boudin’s plan includes three major reforms: (1) focus probation on people who need to be supervised only for as long as necessary; (2) make parole a real opportunity at community re-acclimation; and (3) reinvest prison savings in services and opportunities for those under supervision. (Full Policy)

6. Replace Jail with Mental Health Care

Until we stop using our jails as mental health facilities, mass incarceration will persist.  Right now, 75% of people incarcerated suffer from serious mental illness and/or substance use disorders. But jails do nothing to treat the root cause of crime. Rather, jails often victimize and destabilize an already vulnerable population, who are then released to the streets with no treatment plan or housing, often leading to more crime.  As District Attorney, Chesa Boudin will implement a comprehensive transformation of the criminal justice system to decriminalize and treat mental illness, housing instability and substance use as public health issues rather than criminal justice issues.  

Boudin’s plan includes three major reforms: (1) expand and strengthen all levels of mental health diversion programs; (2) close County Jail # 4 and put savings into mental health care; (3) create a centralized mental health facility run by health professionals. (Full Policy)

7. Reform Youth Justice

To end mass incarceration we need to stop jailing our youth.  Chesa Boudin is committed to a safe, fair and effective youth justice system that emphasizes building on young people’s strengths in their home communities, not confining them in brutal, expensive and ineffective youth prisons. As District Attorney, he will make sure that we focus our resources on helping youth caught up in the juvenile justice system turn their lives around in their home communities, rather than wasting away in correctional facilities.  

Boudin’s plan includes four major reforms, in order to help achieve the safe, fair, and effective closure of the San Francisco’s juvenile detention facility: (1) offer diversion to all youth who commit non-serious, non-violent offenses; (2) offer youth greater access to community services; (3) create two 8-bed temporary detention homes for the very small number of youth who are charged with serious or violent offenses or determined to be high risk; (4) seek probation terms of no greater than ten months for any youth placed on probation by the court. (Full Policy)

8. Eradicate Racial Bias from Our Criminal Justice System

Mass incarceration is rooted in the racist history of the United States, and to end it we must eradicate racism from the criminal justice system.  In San Francisco, we incarcerate African Americans at a rate higher than any other major American city. Black and Brown people in San Francisco are more likely to be harmed by the criminal justice system at every single stage of the process, from arrest through sentencing.  As District Attorney, Chesa Boudin is committed to doing everything in his power to eradicate racism from the criminal justice system. The system must not treat people differently based on the color of their skin, and Boudin has an ambitious plan to end the racist status quo. (Full Policy)

Conclusion

We can end mass incarceration in San Francisco and set a model for the entire country.  To do it, we need innovative, bold, comprehensive policies designed to transform each aspect of our criminal justice system, and to do so safely.  And we need a District Attorney with a track record of meaningful reform and a lifetime of dedication to this very cause. It’s a historic moment, and we can’t miss it.