Chesa Boudin: Reformer in the San Francisco DA’s Office

Only time will tell whether Chesa Boudin, the current San Francisco DA, really walks the walk and talks the talk in the tradition  of legendary DA Terence Hallinan. But after six months in office—he took over in January 2020—Boudin is off to a good start. Hallinan, who died on January 17, 2020, would surely approve of him.

After all, Boudin is aiming to reform what’s called the “criminal justice system,” but that might better be termed the “criminal injustice system. He has eliminated the corrupt system of “cash bail,” which favored those with money and penalized those who didn’t have it, and led to jails full of poor people and rarely if ever a wealthy person.

Boudin is part of a wave of young DA’s around the country who want to reform the system. In Santa Clara Country, DA Jeff Rosen recently announced that he will no longer seek the death penalty, and that he will investigate charges of police misconduct and prosecute where and when necessary.

Ripples from the murder of George Floyd go far and wide.

Like Terence Hallinan, Chesa Boudin comes from a storied American lefty family.  His grandfather, Leonard, belonged more or less to the same generation as Vincent Hallinan. Leonard argued frequently before the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike Vincent, Leonard never entered political life. Chesa’s parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, belonged to a series of left wing groups that devolved from coherence to criminality.

They both took part in a botched attempt in New York State to rob a Brink’s armored vehicle that led to fatalities. Kathy Boudin served a long prison term and now teaches at Columbia University in New York. David Gilbert is still in prison, and after 40 years behind bars and several books to his name, isn’t clamoring for his release. Chesa visits his father frequently. San Francisco cops tried to smear him with the criminal record of his parents and argued that he would bring chaos to the city. Voters didn’t buy that line, though the police spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to convince them.

At a recent virtual town hall meeting, Chesa insisted that he “respected the courage” of SF cops, but that he didn’t like “dishonest and lazy” law enforcement officers, and that while he was “pro-labor” he was against police unions because they are “part of the problem.” He added that he would not accept donations from any police union and that he would do his best to see to it that cops who had records of misconduct would not be rehired.

Boudin noted that on the whole crime had decreased dramatically (50%) in San Francisco over the past three-and-a-half months, though he didn’t take credit for the stats. Covid-19 and the shut down of businesses in the city had led to a decline in crimes against property, he said. He added that the theft of automobiles – always a big SF issue—had increased by 28%.

Perhaps the most dramatic stat that he offered was that 75% of the people in jail in the city were mentally ill, addicted to drugs or both. “I’m not a drug warrior,” Boudin said. “We can’t arrest our way out of drug addiction.” But he also noted that 24% of the felony cases his office handled derived from cases that involved the sale of drugs. There was, he explained, a steady rise of overdose-deaths from Fentanyl in the city.

What would his office do if the federal government sent troops to San Francisco? Boudin was asked. “We don’t need, or want and won’t tolerate the kind of behavior seen in Portland,” he insisted. “If Trump sends troops we’ll protect First Amendment rights.”

Terence Hallinan would be of the same mind. So would Vincent Hallinan and Chesa’s grandfather, Leonard, who argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that it was unconstitutional to require the post office to “detain and deliver…foreign mailings of communist political propaganda” only if and when the addressee consented to receive the material. One law journal called it “the Freedom of the Mails” case.

Boudin said that he had participated in peaceful protests after the murder of George Floyd, and that while his office prosecuted cases involving violence and commercial burglary, it did not prosecute cases involving civil disobedience. Given today’s political climate, it’s not difficult to imagine that one day San Francisco’s young, energetic and idealistic DA will find himself in jail along with dozens if not hundreds of other protestors.


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