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Last month, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said she made an emergency request to the city’s Board of Supervisors for more money to help support a police crackdown on crime, including open air drug dealing, car break-ins and retail theft.
“I’m proud this city believes in giving people second chances,” said Breed. “Nevertheless, we also need there to be accountability when someone does break the law . . . I was raised by my grandmother to believe in ‘tough love,’ in keeping your house in order, and we need that, now more than ever.”
But a few days later, San Francisco’s progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin denounced her plan as “knee-jerk” and “short-sighted,” thereby throwing a monkey wrench in her plans. Boudin called for San Francisco to “shift our focus to . . . addressing root causes of crime.” Without Boudin’s participation, Breed will struggle to achieve her goal of shutting down open-air drug use and dealing, and rising property crimes.
To be sure, there is still a lot that Breed can do without Boudin. On Christmas Eve, after a 12-hour meeting, the city’s Board of Supervisors voted to support her declaration of a state of emergency in the Tenderloin neighborhood, where open-air drug use is widespread. This puts the city’s emergency management department in charge of responding to the drug overdose crisis, which kills about two people a day, and will allow the city to open a “linkage center” capable of referring addicts to housing and rehab.
But Boudin’s opposition, along with that of progressives on the Board of Supervisors, was enough for Breed to pull back from her promise to increase funding for the police and arrest people for using drugs in public. And without the active participation of Boudin, the arrests that are made are unlikely to result in prosecution — so dealers and other criminals are likely to just return to the street.
Why is Boudin so opposed to Breed’s actions? According to the DA, “Affordable housing, quality education, access to health care and addiction services can provide the stability that empirical evidence has shown actually deters criminal activity.” But the “empirical evidence” Boudin pointed to simply found that, in 12 cities where more than 10% of the population received welfare benefits, “more crime occurs when more time has passed since welfare payments occurred.” It did not explore the role of any factors he cited.
Like other progressive prosecutors around the US, Boudin is a former public defender, and in office has acted as one, undermining the natural checks and balances that our fundamentally antagonistic criminal-justice system creates between public defenders and DAs. Unlike other DAs, Boudin grew up with his parents in prison, something he made a central selling point of his campaign.
Boudin routinely expresses animosity toward the police. At his election-night party, a supporter led the crowd in a chant against the Police Officers’ Association: “F–k the POA! F–k the POA!” Today, the San Francisco Police Department is short 400 officers and demoralized.
When he ran for office in 2018, Boudin announced, “We will not prosecute cases involving quality-of-life crimes. Crimes such as public camping, offering or soliciting sex, public urination, blocking a sidewalk, etc., should not and will not be prosecuted.
Boudin has explicitly claimed that some laws shouldn’t be enforced because doing so supposedly increases victimization. “Jails do nothing to treat the root cause of crime,” he claimed. Boudin called “open-air drug use and drug sales . . . technically victimless crimes.” When Boudin announced that he was not going to prosecute street-level drug dealers, he said it was because they are “themselves victims of human trafficking.”
In fact, there is little evidence to support Boudin’s claim that the fentanyl dealers in San Francisco are dealing drugs against their will. Tom Wolf, a member of San Francisco’s Drug Dealing Task Force, who was once a homeless fentanyl addict himself for several months, knows several dealers. “These guys would show me pictures of the houses they were building back home in Honduras,” Wolf told me.
Boudin and other progressive criminal-justice reformers, such as Manhattan’s new DA, Alvin Bragg, oppose enforcing laws when addicts and mentally-ill people break them because they believe our system is fundamentally unfair and racist. This explains why Boudin and his ilk are narrowly focused on emptying jails and prisons.
“The challenge going forward,” said Boudin in 2019, “is how do we close a jail?”
The results speak for themselves. In 2019, Boudin reduced San Francisco’s jail population by 73%, to 766 from 2,850 in 2019, despite the fact that more than half of all offenders, and three-quarters of the most violent ones who are released from jail before trial, commit new crimes. The charging rate for theft by Boudin’s office declined from 62 percent in 2019 to 46 percent in 2021 and for petty theft declined from 58 percent to 35 percent.
Car break-ins were 75 percent higher in May 2021 than in 2019, before the pandemic, and reached an astonishing 3,000 last month. Meanwhile, many business owners and residents tell me they long ago stopped bothering to report crime.
As Breed seeks support for her crackdown, Boudin is fighting for his political life. A recall election has been scheduled for June, and many people believe San Francisco’s progressive voters will elect to remove him from office, eliminating one obstacle to the mayor’s efforts.
The recall of Boudin — and the success of Breed — may signal a rebalancing in America’s attitudes toward drugs and crime. The US went too far in the 1980s and 1990s in terms of incarceration but then too far in the other direction over the last 20 years. Breed knows that many so-called “victimless” crimes have real victims, including her sister, who died of an overdose, and her brother, who is in prison for pushing an accomplice, who later died, out of a robbery getaway car.
Breed’s grandmother was right about “tough love.” Hopefully, in the face of rising crime, San Franciscans, and progressives nationwide, will finally start to deliver some.
Michael Shellenberger is the author of “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities.”