SAN FRANCISCO — Voters in San Francisco on Tuesday put an end to one of the country’s most pioneering experiments in criminal justice reform, ousting a district attorney who eliminated cash bail, vowed to hold police accountable and worked to reduce the number of people sent to prison.

Chesa Boudin, the progressive district attorney, was removed after 2 1/2 years in office, according to The Associated Press, in a vote that is set to reverberate through Democratic politics nationwide as the party fine-tunes its messaging on crime before midterm elections that threaten to strip Democratic control over Congress.

Ultimately the election was a contest between progressive Democrats who saw Boudin as a key leader of a national movement to address mass incarceration and a backlash by more politically moderate San Franciscans — a coalition of Democrats, independents and Republicans — who grew agitated by persistent property crimes and open drug use during the pandemic. The backlash won.

Locally, the recall suggested that many in San Francisco’s Democratic hierarchy are out of step — and further left — than the city’s voters, one of the most liberal electorates in the country.

In February, the Democratic County Central Committee voted 20-2 to oppose the recall of Boudin, with the two contrary votes coming from candidates who had run against him for the job. In addition, only two members of the 11-member Board of Supervisors, the city’s top legislative body, publicly supported removing Boudin.

In a legal system that cherishes the adversarial tension of prosecutors battling defense lawyers, Boudin is one of very few district attorneys in the country who crossed the courtroom. A former public defender, Boudin aggressively expanded diversion programs as an alternative to prison. He said public safety was his first priority but that along the way he would work to make the system more equitable and reverse the legacy of mass incarceration.

Advertising

Boudin’s replacement will be chosen by Mayor London Breed, who has made public safety a cornerstone of her tenure, including her unusual move in December to declare a state of emergency in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, the center of the city’s illicit drug trade.

The city has been facing persistent property crimes, especially car break-ins and burglaries, but data from the Police Department showed that many other types of crime, including homicides, have been stable or declined during the pandemic. Both sides of the recall campaign traded barbs over the accuracy of the statistics, especially when many crimes go unreported.

During the campaign, Boudin himself acknowledged that he did not report his own car being broken into three years before he took office. Judging Boudin’s tenure is also made difficult by the fact that it occurred during the pandemic, when a near total shutdown of the city influenced criminal behavior much more than the policies of a district attorney.

The vote was seen by many as an accumulation of frustration by city residents over squalid street conditions, including the illicit drug sales, homeless encampments and untreated mental illness. During the campaign Boudin repeatedly pointed out that he was not responsible for many of the street conditions that San Francisco residents are decrying but he recognized that he had become a vessel for their anger.

Tuesday’s vote had echoes of another tectonic election in the city, the ouster of three school board members in February, a recall that reflected voters’ sour mood during the pandemic and an assertion of political power by the city’s Asian Americans.

Many of the volunteers in both recall elections were from the Chinese community, members of whom were stung by burglaries and shoplifting and who felt particularly vulnerable after a spate of attacks on Asian Americans in the city during the pandemic.

Advertising

Organizers of the recall say they drew much of their support from harried residents. But criticism of Boudin also came from those who worked with him.

“I wasn’t going to be closed-minded about this new experiment,” Shirin Oloumi, a lawyer who specialized in prosecuting car break-ins before leaving the district attorney’s office in August, said. “It could have been exciting and interesting and I wanted it to be successful.”

But Oloumi said she was demoralized by the departures of so many staff members — she described the office as often in a state of turmoil — and disheartened when Boudin and his deputies refused to consult with the police on a car break-in investigation.

According to a tally by the recall campaign, 67 out of around 150 lawyers and 20 out of 42 victims’ advocates either left or were fired from the district attorney’s office since Boudin took office in 2020.

Oloumi said she believed Boudin never fully embraced the role of a prosecutor.

“He seems to value the perpetrators more than the victims,” she said.