Chesa Boudin: A Radical Child of the Criminal Justice System Seeks to Reform the San Francisco DA’s Office

“Corruption is a dagger at the heart of democracy. The best antidote to corruption, racism, and tyranny is transparency and civic engagement.”

– Chesa Boudin

The name, Chesa Boudin, may not mean much to San Francisco voters, at least not yet. After all, his campaign for DA has just begun. But to American radicals of at least two generations, his last name rings a lot of bells. His grandfather, Leonard Boudin, a criminal defense lawyer, represented Dashiell Hammett, Paul Robeson, the Cuban government of Fidel Castro, as well as Dr. Spock and Daniel Ellsberg.

Chesa’s parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, were members of Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground. They were both arrested in the wake of a botched attempt to rob a Brinks armored vehicle in 1981. His mother served time until 2003, when she was released. His father is still in prison.

In many ways, Chesa is a child of the criminal justice system. Given his background it seems inevitable that he became a lawyer.

Bernardine Dohrn and Billy Ayers helped raise him in Chicago, along with their two sons. He calls them his brothers; their parents are also his parents. After college, Chesa researched the Chavez government in Venezuela, though he was also a critic of Chavez and his government. “Chavez devoted a lot of time and energy to reforming the Constitution so he could stay in office longer, legally,” he told me. “I thought he should have spent more time developing new leadership.”

Chesa’s first name comes from Swahili and means to dance or to play. He has been a world traveler—he has been to over 100 countries— and has written about some of his experiences in Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America. I first met him in 1990 in Chicago where he was playing Little League baseball. Bernardine Dohrn, who was then teaching at Northwestern University School of Law, was his biggest fan. In 2009, when I interviewed him for publication, he told me that he thought that the American Empire was “stressed,” but that it was “an amazingly resilient system,” and “would not likely collapse in your life time and probably not in mine.” A decade later, it’s still both stressed and resilient. At the age of 38, Chesa Boudin is stronger than ever. A San Francisco resident since 2012, he visited the city all through his boyhood. He began to work in the public defender’s office the same year he settled in SF. Now, he’s a veteran, and nobody owns him except himself.

JR: I assume your parents have encouraged you to run for office. Yes?

CB: No, not at all. Not their choice.

JR: Care to say something about the efficacy of electoral politics as a means for social change?

CB: There are numerous ways to make the world a better, more equal and a fairer place. I’ve worked with labor organizers and unions, engaged in direct services work, and I’ve used impact litigation. The more we work together the better. There are moments in history, such as the current race for DA, where electoral politics presents a uniquely effective way to build a social movement and implement significant policy changes.

JR: Do you wear a label, such as liberal, radical, progressive?

CB: I don’t do labels, in part because they have meanings which constantly evolve.

JR: Why are you running for DA?

CB: It’s the first time in over 100 years where there’s no incumbent in the race for San Francisco DA, and the first time in decades when there has been a national consensus that we need to rethink the way we approach crime and punishment. The outgoing DA, George Gascon, had a progressive mandate, but was unable to accomplish all he promised. Still, he built things like the collaborative courts, diversion programs and moved away from money bail. The other candidates in the race are on Gascon’s right and could quickly destroy the progress he has made. I want to build on it.

JR: What happened with Gascon and his mandate?

CB: I think there was a lot of resistance from within the DA’s office and the police department, which undermined his ability to accomplish his goals.

JR: What’s are the problems you mean to address?

CB: The criminal justice system today is one of mass incarceration plagued with racial disparities. Instead of equal justice, we have money bail. Instead of meaningful treatment, we use solitary confinement. Instead of funding schools, we build prisons. The kind of justice you receive shouldn’t be determined by the size of your bank account, where you work, or the color of your skin.

JR: Tell me what you’ve done in the legal field so far.

CB: I’ve worked my whole life to reform this system: it’s why I became an attorney. As a San Francisco Deputy Public Defender, I’ve handled hundreds of felony cases, helped establish an immigration defense unit and led the fight against money bail. I know the judges, the juries, the prosecutors and the police officers. I know the men and women charged with crimes, and the communities affected by them. I know our criminal justice system is broken. I’m running for District Attorney because I know how to fix it.

JR: What makes you stand out in the crowd of candidates?

CB: I’m the only one in the race who has been directly impacted by the criminal justice system my whole life. I’m the only candidate who currently works in the Hall of Justice. Over the last five years I’ve spent more time litigating cases in the Hall of Justice than all of the other candidates combined. I’m the only candidate who has worked with men and women accused of crimes and helped them turn their lives around, get off the streets and on their feet.

JR: You visited your mother, Kathy Boudin when she was in prison and your father, Dave Gilbert, who is still behind bars.

CB: I have a lifetime visiting prisons, thinking about and working on criminal justice reform. In high school I spoke out in support of other children with incarcerated parents. At Yale I learned that one of my childhood friends ended up incarcerated on the same cellblock as my father. He was black and I was white. He excelled in school when I was falling behind. Yet he was in jail while I was at college.

JR: You went to Yale, an elite East Coast law school. What did you do there?

CB: I conducted research in partnership with the Association of State Correctional Administrators, which resulted in many states changing prison policies. After Yale I worked for two federal judges handling criminal trials and appeals, authorizing search warrants, and learning the highest standards for ethics and integrity in the application of the law. I currently serve on the boards of two non-profits leading criminal justice reform efforts both in California and nationally.

JR: Can you tell me about your work as a lawyer in San Francisco?

CB:  I’ve handled hundreds of felony cases, tried more than two dozen cases to jury verdict. I helped launch our office’s immigration unit and partnered with the sheriff to ensure equal treatment for non-citizens.

JR: You’ve also worked in the community.

CB: I built a coalition of civil rights groups and persuaded big law firms to initiate impact litigation. I’ve helped San Francisco implement risk assessment algorithms to inform judicial decision-making. I launched a pre-arraignment representation unit—the first of it’s kind in California—which provides services in the critical period between arrest and first court appearance. It helps protect children, saves jobs and provides continuity of medical treatment.

Sadly, I watched innocent people plead guilty just because they were too poor to pay money bail.

JR: What would you do, if elected, that would make a difference?

CB: As DA my priority is public safety, which is only partly about drug sales, car break-ins and gun violence. It’s also about the times when police violate rights, people are subject to unlawful arrest, and crimes go unsolved because of lack of trust between law enforcement and the community. Public safety is about when someone in jail risks sexual violence and contagious diseases, and when we tear a child away from parents.

JR: So you feel the criminal justice system isn’t working?

CB: It’s broken, expensive, inefficient and inhumane. More than two thirds of people who are arrested and prosecuted come back into the system within a couple years of release. Their families suffer. Children grow up without parents. The cycle of crime, poverty and incarceration continues, creating more victims along the way.

JR: You want a safer city for everyone, is that correct? How will you do that?

CB: First, I’m going to prioritize victim’s rights. That means every victim of every crime in this city will have the right to participate in the process and have their voice heard. I will establish a restorative justice program for all crime victims who choose to participate. I will work to break the cycle of recidivism at its roots. Eighty-five percent of bookings into county jail are a person suffering from serious drug addiction, mental illness or both. Those people don’t get a free pass, but we will treat the cause not the symptoms. Drug addiction and mental illness are a public health epidemic.

JR: Is the law not enforced equally in San Francisco?

CB: No, it’s not. We must end racial disparities that plague every step of the process. We cannot have small, privileged groups, whether politicians, police officers, or landlords, believe that they’re above the law. All of us must follow the law and accept the consequences for failing to do so. If not, the system itself loses legitimacy.

JR: You have a vast array of big changes that you’d like to make.

CB: Absolutely. No death penalty, no charging juveniles as adults, no life without parole for juveniles, protection for immigrants and accurate statistics about crime. Also, we can’t just rely on the police to police themselves.

JR: Where does your support come from?

CB: Progressives, libertarians, immigrants. It comes from people who understand that we can decrease crime and empower victims without incarcerating more people than any other country in the world. In my corner, there are people of color who’ve been directly impacted by crime and incarceration, plus working folks, union members, and taxpayers who want to stop wasting our resources on failed, inhumane policies. People who want to build trust between the police and the communities they are supposed to serve and protect. People who know that we’re all much more than our worst mistakes, and who also understand that the status quo makes us unsafe.

JR: Are you familiar with the legal career of your grandfather, Leonard Boudin, who was a legendary civil rights and civil liberties lawyer?

CB: I’ve read cases that he litigated and heard about his legacy. People say he was a brilliant, courageous lawyer who was willing to fight and win for clients other lawyers wouldn’t even talk to. I knew him, personally, as a loving grandfather who taught me to swim and to play chess.

JR: Does your campaign have a slogan, or slogans?

CB: No, but I hope the campaign raises consciousness about criminal justice policy in ways that sound bytes could never do.

JR: What if anything did you learn from your work in Venezuela that you have adopted for your campaign for DA?

CB: There’s no direct link, but I think corruption is endemic, here and there. Corruption is a dagger at the heart of democracy. The best antidote to corruption, racism, and tyranny is transparency and civic engagement.

JR: Do we need a new jail in San Francisco?

CB: No, we do not. We can easily and safely reduce the jail population to a level that does not require a new jail. Instead of spending an estimated $300 million on a new jail we could invest half of that money in building new beds for residential mental health and drug treatment. Right now, people who are seriously mentally ill wait in jail an average of four months for a placement in a treatment facility. And 65% of people in the jail are held for less than a week. Twenty-seven percent of people in jail are there simply because they’re too poor to pay bail. Something’s very wrong with that picture. We’ve got to do something to change it.

JR: What is your strategy for winning the election for DA?

CB: Build a grassroots social movement. Keep your eyes peeled and your ears to the ground.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.