Here's What the Criminal Justice Reform Movement Can Learn From Chesa Boudin’s Loss

Opponents of mass incarceration shouldn’t despair or write off the recall of San Francisco’s progressive DA. Instead, we should take lessons and build stronger infrastructure to propel future wins.

Janos Marton

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On June 7, San Francisco’s progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin was officially recalled by voters. There is no sugarcoating it: This is a setback for the criminal justice reform movement, which exposes longstanding weaknesses. But advocates shouldn’t take the wrong lessons from the defeat. If we can be honest about the movement’s shortcomings, we can learn from this loss and build a sturdier infrastructure to support criminal justice reform wins moving forward. 

Let’s get a few things out of the way first: Blaming Boudin for all of San Francisco’s problems, as many recall supporters did, is absurd. The claims from the opposition that he made San Francisco unsafe were baseless, without evidence, and often made by bad faith actors. The local and national media hits on Boudin were unrelenting. And a billionaire-funded Super PAC, whose largest contributor was a Republican donor, spent big to oust the left-wing DA. All true! The fact is that Chesa Boudin was doing the job he was elected to do less than three years ago — reform the city’s criminal justice system. 

But how many times must we watch criminal justice policies get picked apart by a media tidal wave without strong counter messaging? Boudin’s opponents were able to effectively set the narrative that he was soft-on-crime” and therefore wasn’t doing enough to protect the safety of residents. Much of the recall playbook looked familiar to the recent bail reform rollbacks in New York, where legislators walked back a landmark 2019 law which reduced the use of bail for low-level offenses. In that case, misinformation was used by anti-reform actors to rile people up, and was pumped out relentlessly through a well-funded campaign, to the point that, today, bail reform” is often blamed for practically any crime in the city. A similar dynamic was at play in San Francisco, and Boudin faced the consequences. 

In this political environment, the criminal justice reform movement’s topline response can’t be, crime is actually not that bad” or the 90s were worse,” which has been a particularly popular tactic by activists on social media to push back on rhetoric from anti-reform politicians or media stories. Instead, a full-throated defense of criminal justice reform must be rooted in values and public safety. Why is this policy just? How is it making peoples’ lives better? How is it making our communities safer in the long run and right now? You’re likely to see values like this trumpeted during electoral campaigns, but less so during governance. 

Getting this message out requires effective messengers. Community leaders and other stakeholders — faith, business, labor, and even pro-reform law enforcement (where they exist) — should be organized and deployed when trying to implement criminal justice reforms. And of course, you need storytelling, especially the powerful testimony of families most directly impacted by the criminal justice system. In my years of experience running local, state, and national criminal justice reform campaigns, there is no contest: the people who most effectively move politicians, journalists, and voters are those directly impacted by the system sharing their stories. 

Consider some of Boudin’s most progressive achievements in office — setting up a workers’ protection unit to crack down on abusive employers, an Innocence Commission to evaluate whether innocent people are locked up, or charging policies meant to give young people a second chance. The human stories of who were served by these changes, and why they are in line with our values, should have been made front and center in the effort to oppose the recall. 

To both win and defend such criminal justice reforms, we must organize directly impacted people, ally them with a diverse group of local stakeholders, train them for public speaking, and create media products like videos and explainers. In addition, we need communications operations that can constantly pitch reporters for news on why reforms work, and place op-eds that make the case.

So, why isn’t this happening enough already? Because it’s neither cheap nor easy. This kind of sustained mobilization requires a lot of support, especially in the face of reactionary opponents who either aren’t going away (like correction officer unions) or have extremely deep pockets (like business leaders and other power brokers). The philanthropy community that funds so much of the criminal justice reform infrastructure should recognize this dynamic and better fund messaging work. 

Given how often criminal justice victories face immediate backlash, winning issue campaigns should be funded for two years afterwards to defend and implement the policies. This might have better protected bail reform in New York, for example. Meanwhile, winning electoral candidates need to tool up their communications shops more aggressively during the transition. When new Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg was being pummeled by the media this past winter over a leaked memorandum on how to implement his campaign goals, he hadn’t even onboarded a communications team yet.

Chesa Boudin was and remains an inspiration to many in the movement. But to wave away his loss by pointing to less consequential electoral victories in Tuesday’s primaries is putting our heads in the sand. Yes, other reformers won in places like Iowa and Contra Costa County, Calif., and those wins should be celebrated. But the main headline from Tuesday night is that arguably the most progressive DA in the country was recalled by a 60-40 margin, in San Francisco, and the movement had no answers for a media barrage that will likely target any other champion next. 

I’ve seen some observers contrast Boudin’s loss with DA Larry Krasner’s reelection in Philadelphia last year. It should be noted that Boudin faced more unfavorable conditions in his recall than would be the case in a normal election. And the amount of money spent against Boudin was staggering—reportedly up to $7.2 million. But the comparison can be helpful, as Krasner’s office in Philadelphia already does much of what I’m arguing for here. The infrastructure to win and defend reforms is stronger. For example, a multiracial coalition of criminal justice and civil rights groups were heavily active in both Krasner’s first election and local policies since then. 

Also, importantly, Krasner faced a cartoonish opponent in his reelection. The same was true for Kim Foxx in Chicago, who endured much criticism, but cruised to reelection against a bombastic tough-on-crimer. Elections where voters have to make a choice between two opponents is better terrain for incumbents than recalls, which serve as straight referendums on those in office who face one-sided attacks.

If you’re serious about dismantling mass incarceration systems, as I am, it’s important to go to bat for politicians who are doing it. The political path of least resistance in the face of breathless media reports on crime rates is to join calls to lock em up.” The few good elected officials on this issue are under enormous pressure, and need support from decarceral activists.

I’m not a pundit — I’m an advocate fighting for a country that doesn’t lock up millions of people. To win, we’ll need a message that lets communities across the country know that we hear their concerns, care about their safety and will make their lives better. We need the resources to do that. We need to stop fighting among ourselves, and stand by our allies. 

Chesa Boudin’s loss was a setback, but the movement must keep growing stronger.

Janos Marton is the National Director for Dream Corps Justice. Follow him on Twitter @janosmarton.

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