The California Prosecutors Who Want to Keep People Out of Jail

Illustration by Adrià Fruitós.

P.Olitics is often defined or understood as the art of making a deal. But I think, at best, it’s the art of enabling tomorrow what we can’t imagine today, ”says Chesa Boudin, the district attorney for San Francisco County. Boudin, the son of two members of the Weather Underground who received long prison sentences, was narrowly elected in 2019 under the San Francisco electoral system. He speaks of the pain of growing up with imprisoned parents; he still receives the collective calls every Saturday from his imprisoned father; and his belief, instilled in him from childhood, that the mere imprisonment of people is a failure of political imagination. “My personal experience shapes me – my worldview, my fears and hopes, my dreams and aspirations,” he admits.

Boudin and three other prosecutors – Republican Tori Verber Salazar of San Joaquin County, Central Valley (whose office did not respond to requests for comment on this article), and Democrats George Gascón of Los Angeles and Diana Becton of Contra Costa County – stepped in joined the Prosecutors Alliance of California in September 2020. Although their offices serve only four of California’s 58 counties, they represent more than 30 percent of the state’s population. The organization was founded as a progressive alternative to the more conservative California District Attorneys Association (CDAA), which has helped shape criminal justice priorities in the Golden State for decades. In 2022, with 56 of those counties holding elections for their prosecutors, the number of Californians served by self-identifying progressive prosecutors could hit 50 percent.

Regarding his own philosophy of criminal justice and his belief that a prosecutor shouldn’t be a prisoner-making machine, Boudin continues: “It takes the courage to be ahead of your time, the confidence to take risks and not rely on one to base ideology or dogma, but to be constantly aware of the limits of our knowledge and experience. “

The changes in criminal justice priorities along the west coast – especially, if not exclusively, in the big cities – are one of the most extraordinary and mind-boggling political stories of the past decade. The law enforcement systems of the largest metropolitan areas in the West are run by men and women who are fluent in the language of racial justice, who profoundly oppose mass incarceration, and who believe that they should be judged on whether or not they increase the number of people can number of prisoners in their territory.

F.Our hundred miles south, Gascón, Boudin’s predecessor in San Francisco, was elected Los Angeles County Attorney in a surprise last November. He has urged prosecutors to limit sentence enhancements, law enforcement actions against the death penalty, three strikes and you’re out convictions, youthful adulthoods, and other remnants of decades of wars on crime and drugs. In March, Gascón’s office reported a 71 percent reduction in the use of penalty enhancements between December 2020 and February 2021 compared to the same period last year.

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