San Francisco, California, US – This month, voters in San Francisco removed their progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin in a recall election that brought his four-year term to a premature end.
Boudin was elected in 2019 on a platform that promised to look with new eyes at tough-on-crime criminal justice policies that have contributed to the skyrocketing prison population in the United States and disproportionately targeted communities of colour.
In the US, which leads the world in per capita incarceration, criminal justice reform and police accountability have been key demands from a growing movement for racial justice. The success of Boudin, alongside other “progressive prosecutors” who were elected in large cities such as Los Angeles and Philadelphia, was seen as a sign of the growing appeal of that movement.
Progressives now face substantial pushback from forces on the right and even within the Democratic Party itself, who seek to portray them as “soft on crime” amidst nationwide increases in violence.
Increasingly frustrated with an emerging narrative that they criticise as detached from the data – increases in violent crime are not linked to progressive reforms, and have often been most acute in municipalities governed by conservatives – progressives have pushed back against suggestions that a tough-on-crime approach is the best way to promote public safety or tackle problems such as homelessness and an opioid drug crisis.
“The past two years were difficult, and we acknowledge people are frustrated and angry,” said Abdi Soltani, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union Northern California, which opposed the recall effort. “But we know criminalising poverty and addiction and filling the jails won’t make San Francisco any safer.”
Progressive prosecutors have faced fierce opposition from conservative actors such as law enforcement unions, which have attacked reformers across the country and sought to portray their policies as “pro-criminal”.
In liberal cities where such groups might normally struggle to gain traction, recall elections, which allow voters to remove an official from office before their term has finished, have become a favoured tool for opponents of officials like Boudin.
A recall election has been mounted against Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, and George Gascon, who holds the same position in Los Angeles, is facing his second recall attempt in just two years. While the campaign to recall Krasner failed, state Republicans have announced that they will attempt to remove him via impeachment.
The success of the campaign to recall Boudin, which spent more than $7m, according to local media reports, and was promoted by conservative donors, police unions, and real estate groups, has bolstered the morale of similar coalitions elsewhere. In Los Angeles, conservative sheriff Alex Villanueva tweeted a simple message following Boudin’s defeat: “George Gascon, you’re next.”
Such campaigns have successfully tapped into voter frustration about issues such as crime and homelessness, even as evidence points to the provision of housing as the most effective means of addressing homelessness. A recent Gallup poll shows that Americans are more concerned about crime than they have been at any point since 2016.
Such concerns have been driven partly by increases in certain types of violent crime, particularly homicides. Between 2019 and 2020, homicides increased in the US by more than 30 percent, according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, although homicide rates remain substantially lower than their peak in the 1980s. In San Francisco, in particular, the effort to recall Boudin also pointed to a growing number of hate crimes against Asian Americans.
Proponents of Boudin’s recall, which won the support of 55 percent of voters, have argued that their success cannot be waved away as the result of Republican talking points or funding from conservative donors. Instead, they have argued that progressives have not been responsive to the needs of a public that is increasingly worried about crime.
Progressives said they acknowledge the need to take such concerns seriously, but believe that doubling down on a punitive approach is both cruel and, ultimately, less effective.
“What we all owe people is real solutions on how to get from A to B on these problems. Putting this person in jail, putting them in solitary confinement, isn’t necessarily going to make us safer in the long term. We need both accountability and treatment,” Jamarah Hayner, who oversaw Gascon’s election in 2020, told Al Jazeera.
Advocates of reform also said the conservative reliance on recall elections is a sign that the forces promoting them have little faith in their ability to win the public over to a more concrete agenda of their own.
“It’s representative of this anti-democratic impulse we’re seeing in the conservative movement where you essentially say ‘If I don’t like the results of an election, I can make it go away,’” said Hayner.
A political tool
But right-wing talking points have continued to resonate, at least some of the time, with voters. In Los Angeles, billionaire Rick Caruso posted a strong showing in the race for mayor, and will face off against Democrat Karen Bass in the general election.
Running on a more traditional conservative platform that emphasised increased funding for law enforcement, Caruso’s campaign successfully capitalised on the anxieties of voters about crime and an increasingly visible homeless population.
The success of those appeals, according to Peter Calloway, a San Francisco public defender, is partly explained by the fact that tough-on-crime framing has largely dominated dialogue on criminal justice for decades. Voters are primed to understand issues through that lens, even when evidence points to better approaches.
“The status quo narratives on crime have been developed over decades. This has involved reporting at the local and national levels, pop culture, political campaigns, massive amounts of money by cop unions and corporate interests,” said Calloway. “These narratives pervade our society, and it will take years to meaningfully undo them.”
However, those narratives are far from guaranteed to win. While Caruso’s success and Boudin’s defeat dominated coverage of the June 7 primaries, candidates who ran on a commitment to criminal justice reform in places such as Contra Costa and Alameda county performed well.
In an email to Al Jazeera, Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton said that it is a “false choice” to contrast criminal justice reform and public safety. “It is the old failed policies of the past that have not kept our communities safe, have led us to the highest rates of incarceration and very high rates of racial disparities in our system,” said Becton.
“But there is a better way. We can have safety, justice, and progress.”
‘Fight only going to get harder’
Progressives have another argument they believe can help bolster the case for reform: their critics’ own records.
While media coverage around rising crime in the US has often centred on places like San Francisco, a March 2022 study by the right-of-centre think-tank Third Way found that conservative municipalities have seen rises in violent crime that often outpace those of their more liberal counterparts.
As an example, Julie Edwards, who worked as a spokesperson for the campaign to keep Boudin in office, pointed to the tough-on-crime district attorney from Sacramento County, Anne Marie Schubert.
Schubert ran for the statewide office of attorney general, running a campaign that lambasted progressives for policies that she said had allowed crime to spiral out of control. But between 2020 and 2021, when homicides in San Francisco increased by 17 percent, from 48 to 56, homicides increased in Schubert’s own municipality by nearly 30 percent.
“The fact that she ran on this record when the results were worse than we had in a city like San Francisco points to the disconnect on this issue,” said Edwards. “It’s important to challenge this narrative that tough-on-crime policies translate to public safety, because that’s not true.”
Critics of the narrative around crime also point out that such appeals often depend on an inflated portrayal of the power progressives hold when it comes to shaping policy around criminal justice.
While the language of reform may have been embraced by officials throughout the Democratic Party, many in leadership positions, such as President Joe Biden, helped build the tough-on-crime consensus that reformers are now seeking to challenge.
Mayors in Democratic cities across the country, from San Francisco to New York to Chicago, have responded to concerns about crime with calls to expand police budgets and California, despite its reputation as a progressive bastion, still incarcerates more people per capita than most countries in the world, according to the Prison Policy Institute.
In a country where reliance on incarceration has become the norm, progressives have said asking the public to imagine something different is a difficult task, made all the more difficult by a number of powerful interests ready to mobilise in favour of the status quo.
But despite setbacks, many believe the reform movement still has a strong case to make. “The fight for reform is only going to get harder,” said Hayner. “We need to emphasise that there are solutions better than ones that focus on incarceration.”