On Sunday, Aug. 14, former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin will visit Sonoma for a talk hosted by local nonprofit Praxis Peace Institute.
Boudin, who was elected in 2019, ran on a progressive platform which emphasized expanding diversion programs, ending cash bail and decriminalizing poverty and homelessness by declining to prosecute quality-of-life crimes such as public camping, soliciting sex and public urination.
In June, Boudin was recalled in a campaign in which his detractors raised $7.1 million. Days ago, Boudin announced he will not run in the special election this November, citing an intention to prioritize his family.
The talk is one in an ongoing series by Praxis Peace Institute.
Established 22 years ago, the organization is “dedicated to systemic peace, social and economic justice, environmental sustainability and informed civic participation.” Founder and executive director Georgia Kelly began the organization to learn and teach peace-building skills in opposition to wars.
In addition to their talk series, Praxis hosts an annual seminar—opening next month—at the Mondragón Cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain. Founded in 1956, Mondragón Corporation is a federation of hundreds of worker cooperatives and the leading business group in the Basque region.
The North Bay Bohemian interviewed Boudin prior to his visit to Sonoma. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
North Bay Bohemian: Will you share your definition of what it means to be a progressive prosecutor?
Chesa Boudin: Being a progressive prosecutor is really being a decarceral prosecutor. It’s an understanding that we need to proactively reduce the number of people in jails and prisons. It doesn’t mean you’re an abolitionist, necessarily, but it means you recognize that more incarceration is not the solution in the country that locks up more people than any other country in the history of the world.
There are a lot of people in blue states or jurisdictions who call themselves progressive, but who are fundamentally committed to the status quo.
You have to be committed, as I was, to expanding diversion programs, declining to prosecute juveniles as adults, refusing to participate in the criminalization of reproductive choices, abolishing the death penalty and increasing upstream interventions like mental health care and drug treatment. These are not only more cost-effective and more likely to reduce the likelihood of future arrests, but are also more humane than waiting for a crime to be committed and then putting people in cages for longer and longer periods of time.
NBB: A 2018 study by Cornell University estimated that 45 percent of Americans are closely related to someone who has been incarcerated. The statistics vary depending on race and socioeconomic status, but it’s a really substantial percentage of the population across all categories. It seems like that often doesn’t translate into progressive attitudes about policing and incarceration, that it doesn’t necessarily create empathy for people living behind bars. What do you make of that?
CB: It’s a staggering statistic. I think you’re right that there are some high profile examples of people who have loved ones who have been incarcerated, who lack the compassion or the creativity to think—literally—outside the box about how to respond to public safety issues, or what have become defined as public safety issues.
But more than that, the almost 50 percent of Americans who have an immediate family member currently or formerly incarcerated mostly don’t look like me and they don’t have the kinds of professional or academic opportunities that I’ve had.
For the most part, the half of America that’s directly connected to the lived experience of incarceration are Black and Brown, immigrants, poor, working class, under-housed or suffering from addiction or mental illness. Because of the confluence of those sorts of factors, they tend to be really underrepresented both in political spaces and in mainstream media discourse. More than a lack of empathy amongst that community, I think it’s a systemic exclusion from the conversation about what sorts of solutions to public safety issues we can be advancing.
NBB: Even though you lost, thousands more people voted against recalling you than voted to elect you in the first place. How does that feel?
CB: I’m proud of the work we accomplished and the movement that we’re a part of.
Look at the primary race in Tennessee last week for District Attorney in Shelby County—Amy Weirich was voted out of office in favor of a reform-minded, Democratic progressive prosecutor. [Weirich] was a Republican, conservative, a classic example of the failed approach this country has taken to criminal justice. She had been in office for over a decade, had crime spiral upwards during her tenure and prosecuted Black women for trying to register to vote.
It didn’t get any national news coverage at all, and yet, in San Francisco, when we got about 15,000 more votes than we did to be elected in 2019—before the votes were even counted, there were news stories all across the country interpreting it as the death of the criminal justice reform movement. That is simply not true. Our movement is strong. It’s growing.
What happened in San Francisco is an aberration, and it’s a result of a truly unique confluence of factors including the fact that we have among the most lenient recall rules of any jurisdiction in the country. It deprives the elected official being recalled even of an opponent to run against and makes it possible to give unlimited contributions to support a recall. We had some individuals giving upwards of $600,000 to support the recall. By contrast, traditional elections have an individual contribution limit of $500.
NBB: How can the people push the legal justice system in a more progressive direction here in Sonoma County or anywhere else in California?
CB: We need to hold our elected officials and appointed officials accountable—our Public Defender, our District Attorney, our police chiefs, our mayors. We’re not going to simply achieve the changes that we’re fighting for by electing progressive prosecutors. We need to also elect progressive supervisors and mayors. We need to make sure that they’re investing in drug treatment and mental healthcare and housing—the things that actually prevent crime, that build safe and vibrant communities, that make people feel safe when they walk around. Investing in social services is a critical thing that can happen outside the criminal legal system and can fundamentally change the nature of policing and who police interact with.
I don’t want to live in a society where police are the first line of response to drug overdoses. It’s not effective. It’s not efficient. It distracts police from working on violent crimes.
We can also make sure that, as consumers of news media, we’re staying informed but also pushing back against the “If it bleeds, it leads” approach that is so dominant in coverage of public safety issues in this country. [That news approach] is designed to increase resources and power for police unions, without any connection to data, evidence or alternatives that actually address root causes.”
The event will be held outdoors at the Sonoma Community Center, located at 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma. Proof of Covid-19 vaccination and booster are required. Tickets are $25 general admission. To register, visit praxispeace.org/event_registration
The Praxis trip to Mondragón is Sept. 11–17. Register at praxispeace.org/mondragon.php. Praxis executive director Georgia Kelly calls the program, “a unique opportunity to learn cooperative models of business organization and to see firsthand how they work over a long period of time. It is also an opportunity to experience the values, culture, and ethics that support cooperatives.”