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San Francisco's New DA: 'What We Have Been Doing Is Not Working'


And as Florida lawmakers continue to debate voting rights for those who've served their prison sentences, in San Francisco, the new top prosecutor is pushing for change in the way his city thinks about crime and punishment. Chesa Boudin was recently sworn in as San Francisco's district attorney, but his biography might not be what you'd expect for a city prosecutor. He spent years as a public defender, and for him, criminal justice is personal. He grew up visiting both of his parents in prison for driving the getaway car in a robbery that took the lives of three men. His father is still incarcerated.

Boudin ran on a platform of improving public safety by reforms like restorative justice. We called him to ask him to tell us more.

Chesa Boudin, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CHESA BOUDIN: Thanks for having me, Michel. Great to be with you.

MARTIN: During your inauguration speech, when you were outlining your priorities for the district attorney's office, you said, quote, "restorative justice saves lives. I know this because it saved mine." How did it save your life?

BOUDIN: When my parents were arrested, I was a year old. And like so many children with incarcerated parents, I experienced a range of traumas connected to the separation. I was angry. I was ashamed. I had developmental delays, behavioral problems. And what I did over the course of many years on prison visits and phone calls and letters was a restorative justice practice within our own family.

And it was that practice and that time that allowed me to learn not only to forgive my parents for the harm that they had caused but also to forgive myself. Because like so many people who were victimized directly or indirectly by crime, I blamed myself. If I hadn't been able to find closure, I never would have overcome those early developmental challenges. I never would have made it on to college and law school and to the tremendous opportunity that I have ahead of me today.

MARTIN: What do you think is the most important thing that you need to do to persuade people that a different approach is not just warranted, but that it's effective?

BOUDIN: One of my priorities is giving victims the right to choose different paths to restoration and to healing. It's prioritizing having restitution available for economic harm, having victim services for the trauma and also recognizing that victims are far more than simply pieces of evidence to be used in order to secure a lengthy prison sentence.

And my commitment is to give victims a say. Different victims, different survivors of different crimes will choose to pursue different paths. And hopefully, over time, we can collectively transform our culture into one that prioritizes healing and prevention instead of simply focusing on punishment.

MARTIN: One of your first moves has already gotten a lot of attention. You fired a number of veteran prosecutors from your office. One of them told KQED that obviously was not happy about this and said, for someone who ran on a platform of second chances, I know I never got a first. How does this fit into your vision of the way you want to run the office?

BOUDIN: Personnel decisions are always hard, and that was a very difficult process for me to go through. Certainly wasn't something that I looked forward to and not something that I hope to have to do again. But I think it's been blown way out of proportion. A little context is important here.

We have about 300 employees in the district attorney's office in San Francisco, and turnover of seven with a new administration is really, really minor. It's precise. It's surgical compared to what you would expect to see, for example, if a Democrat wins the White House next year. I think we'd expect to see 100% turnover in the Cabinet.

Here, instead of doing that, I actually kept the overwhelming majority of staff in place. The managers that I promoted were from within the ranks, people who had served the office. I promoted three women to key management positions. They'd all been within the office for years. So I think the changes we made were really, really minor compared to what other newly elected executives do and even other newly elected district attorneys.

MARTIN: Like a lot of cities, a lot of major cities, San Francisco is getting richer and whiter, but arrests and prosecutions in the city don't reflect that - that black and Latino residents are still more likely to be searched, arrested and prosecuted. The Justice Department even convened a panel to investigate those disparities in San Francisco. Others have tried to close this gap. How will you be different?

BOUDIN: In San Francisco, there are things that we will begin doing immediately - things like refusing to charge cases that result from a pretextual traffic stop. We're also focusing on things like ending money bail, which we know perpetuate racial biases within the system. I'm excited that in the next week, I'll be releasing a written policy which prohibits my staff from using wealth-based detention and instead will move towards a risk-based system where people who are dangerous will only be released if there are conditions that can assure public safety and they return to court rather than allowing wealthy people who may be very dangerous to buy their freedom. That's an example of a concrete policy which will help to chip away at the entrenched racial bias permeating our criminal justice system.

MARTIN: So, before we let you go, what's going to be your metric of success? I mean, when should we check in with you? I mean, you've identified some very big goals. You've identified some very big, you know, obstacles to those goals. I think these are things that most people recognize a very kind of - have a very deep stem in our society. But you obviously ran for the office thinking that you could make a difference. And so what's going to be your metric of success? When will we know that you've done what you set out to do? How will you know?

BOUDIN: The metrics that I want to use have to do with things that may be a little bit more difficult to measure but which are far more important in terms of public safety - things like recidivism rates.

And while it may take time to measure recidivism, the rate with which people are rearrested after a criminal justice intervention, it's far more important to the community that when the police bring us someone who's been arrested, what we do with them, whether it's securing a criminal conviction in a jail or prison sentence or whether it's a diversion program that that intervention result in less crime on the back end.

Nobody's evaluating the success of prosecutors based on recidivism, based on the effectiveness of their intervention. And I would love to be able to show San Francisco four years from now that far fewer of the people who come into the county jail come back once we're done with them

MARTIN: That's Chesa Boudin. He's the district attorney for San Francisco.

Mr. Boudin, thanks so much for talking to us. I hope we'll talk again.

BOUDIN: Thank you, Michel. I'll look forward to that. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.