What went wrong in San Francisco?
What the recall of San Francisco’s prosecutor should teach us about the limits of piecemeal progressive reform.
Last fall, I spent a week in San Francisco, one of my favorite cities. And it was heartbreaking.
There were encampments of people who were unhoused every few blocks. There was drug paraphernalia all over the sidewalks.
While walking with a friend who lives in the city, I was in deep thought and inadvertently led us down a random street. Before we went too far, he stopped me. “We shouldn’t walk here,” he warned. We turned around.
But San Francisco hasn’t. On Tuesday, San Francisco voters roundly recalled their prosecutor Chesa Boudin, who was elected on a progressive platform in 2019 (endorsed by yours truly). Boudin implemented a series of criminal legal reforms — including eliminating cash bail, ending the prosecution of children as adults, and charging errant cops with criminal misconduct. Though murder rates are up in San Francisco, mirroring the increase across the country, violent crime dropped under Boudin.
Since Boudin’s ouster, national pundits and newspapers haven’t been able to resist overinterpreting Boudin’s ouster as a “backlash” against progressives. This isn’t the first time national outlets have overinterpreted a local San Francisco election. Last time, it was the recall of school board members in San Francisco.
But blaming a progressive prosecutor for San Francisco’s current challenges is simplistic, if not cartoonish. After all, though prosecutors are uniquely focused on the criminal legal system, there’s actually very little of that system they control. Far more of what drives crime sits with broader municipal, state, and federal government policies. But dissecting Boudin’s ousting still offers lessons. It can help us understand how altering one small area of public policy without addressing the context in which that policy operates can backfire — why progressive reforms need to be comprehensive.