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Changing Everything

Beyond electing progressive prosecutors, decarceration requires an ambitious, multifaceted struggle at all levels of governance.


From President Joe Biden to the national press to armchair pundits far and wide, there was an overabundance of commentary purporting to explain the meaning of the recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin earlier this month. In these tellings, voters of all backgrounds decisively rejected the impossibly radical vision of Boudin — and, therefore, that of other self-described progressive prosecutors around the country.

Critics have rightly pilloried these narratives for their callous disregard of both empathy and evidence. A quick rundown: The recall campaign spent more than $7 million flooding the streets and airwaves with reports of rising crime, yet violent crime dropped and remained at historic lows under Boudin’s two-plus years in office. And crime has risen around the country, under tough-on-crime prosecutors as well as (or more than) under liberal ones. Further, critics lambasted attempts to explain Boudin’s recall that linked housing insecurity and drug overdoses — signs of poverty and despair — to a general atmosphere of crime. Finally, critics said, it is hard to see Boudin’s loss as proof that California voters desire harsh punishment, when voters in the neighboring, and more populous, counties of Alameda and Contra Costa both supported progressive prosecutors that same evening: Diana Becton was re-elected in Contra Costa County, and Pamela Price won her primary in Alameda.

The results in southern California were even more contrary to the initial narrative that California voters desire more tough-on-crime measures. In Los Angeles, a city more than four times larger than San Francisco, decarceral candidates are either leading in or won several main offices in local elections held the same night as the recall vote.

These rejections of the discriminatory and often grossly misleading attempts to make sense of the recall election are necessary. But with the recall now a couple of weeks in the rearview mirror, we should press beyond fact-checking crime data and voter tallies to consider the strategy of electing progressive prosecutors itself — from the vantage point of those waging the effort to end mass incarceration. After all, it was organized communities, often in outrage at routine instances of police violence that districts attorney refused to prosecute, that went on to elect progressive prosecutors in Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, St. Louis, and elsewhere. In translating protest politics into political power, the work to elect progressive prosecutors was primarily a defensive measure. It was meant to lessen the repressive power of the state against the working-class communities of color, gender-variant people, and people with disabilities who experience its greatest harm.

And so what follows is not a post-mortem on Boudin’s time in office or the recall campaign. Rather, I’d like to probe what role progressive prosecutors do, should, and cannot serve for those of us who believe not only in decarceration but an end to punishment as a catch-all solution to social problems.

A recent innovation in the fight against mass incarceration, the movement to elect progressive prosecutors has united grassroots opposition to police power and industrialized punishment with nonprofits, philanthropic foundations, and professional advocates supporting criminal justice reform. The effort not only targets a local political office of great significance that has for decades been held largely by conservatives in both political parties. It also adopts a governance strategy that Republicans have used to great effect for decades: The best way to shrink or transform the power of a disfavored government agency is to occupy the office itself.

Yet whereas conservatives treat the district attorney’s office as a space to embrace and wield punitive power, progressive prosecutors often approach it as a space to reform. The concept is an elastic one; not all progressive prosecutors share the same approach to the legal system or its failings. Still, as a group, they have shared a belief that local prosecutors, as the Fair and Just Prosecution consortium put it, “are well positioned to make changes that can roll back over-incarceration.” To many of them, the district attorney’s office can stop punishing poverty and devote more attention to serious crimes — including by police or corporations. (Boudin’s office formed an “Economic Crimes Unit” to prosecute wage theft and, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has prosecuted police accused of brutality.)

Progressive prosecutors across the country have pledged to support decarceration through efforts such as “conviction integrity units” to review and potentially release wrongfully convicted people and by eliminating cash bail or declining to prosecute some of the low-level offenses that daily churn thousands of people through the legal system. Progressive prosecutors — an overly broad term that has many flavors, but one that has hailed many former public defenders to the role — have generally pledged to not pursue the death penalty, seek three-strikes sentencing enhancements, or try children as adults. Some, most recently Boston prosecutor Kevin Hayden, have supported restorative justice programs.

Electing progressive prosecutors also frequently challenged the political machines in urban centers that for so long ignored or blocked efforts at police accountability. In St. Louis in 2018, for instance, Wesley Bell ousted seven-term Democratic incumbent Bob McCulloch, a tough-on-crime prosecutor who declined to prosecute the Ferguson officer who killed Michael Brown in 2014. But the cycle of protests from grieving families and outraged neighbors in Black communities around the country demanding an end to state violence could not be ignored forever. And the jubilation accompanying the successful elections of progressive prosecutors between 2016 and 2020 was the (perhaps unexpected) vindication that popular protests from the criminalized majority were beginning to turn the tides.

What Progressive Prosecutors Can’t Do

What earned progressive prosecutors a grassroots base also earned them deep institutional enmity, and not just from Republicans. The Democratic Party has not embraced progressive prosecutors. The Democratic governor of Pennsylvania signed a bill passed by the Republican state legislature that stripped Krasner of some of his power. San Francisco Mayor London Breed campaigned against Boudin in 2019 and criticized him frequently throughout his time in office. Even in formally nonpartisan races, the Democratic machine has put its thumb on the scale for tough-on-crime prosecutors. Last year in Seattle, two Democratic former governors campaigned against an abolitionist candidate running for city attorney; instead, they endorsed her opponent, a Republican, who went on to win. And in Manhattan, a Democratic district attorney candidate favored by Wall Street almost bought her way to the post.

Not surprisingly, police departments and police unions have been progressive prosecutors’ largest opponents. As anyone who has been arrested or watched Law & Order knows, prosecutors and police are two sides of the same system — or at least that’s the plan. Police have recognized progressive prosecutors as a threat to their authority. During campaigns, police unions have opposed progressive prosecutors; when voters put these prosecutors into office, police have gone on low-key, quasi-strikes to undermine their power. In one extreme case, Boudin’s office had to rent a U-Haul to break up a fencing ring because police refused to supply support. More common, the San Francisco Police Department’s already low clearance rates dropped even further as police appeared to engage in a work slowdown to feed an already-established media narrative that treats prosecutorial lenience toward impoverished people as criminogenic.

Decades of tough-on-crime orthodoxy and corporate media consolidation have tethered the already conservative job of prosecutor even further to reactionary ends. Painted as the guardian of order, the district attorney can be easily branded as the cause of disorder — but only when a progressive prosecutor is in power. Four days after Boudin’s recall, and after months of media sensationalization about San Francisco’s “crime problem,” The Wall Street Journal published an investigation of rising violence in rural, predominantly Republican areas. Noting that rural police have a less antagonistic relationship to residents than urban ones, the article summarized unnamed officials as saying that “the reasons for the rising violence are hard to pinpoint.”

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Yet at root, the turn to progressive prosecutors was an argument that district attorneys had been focusing on the wrong crimes. “We can’t jail our way out of poverty,” Boudin said recently on Democracy Now! That observation points as much to the failure of punitive prosecutors as it does to the limitations of progressive ones. Prosecutors cannot end poverty, let alone provide housing, food, jobs, income, or health care. While they might be able to reduce harm, progressive prosecutors can’t reduce the highly malleable and subjective experience of “crime,” much less the fear of it.

Further, because the role is structurally attached to state power, progressive prosecutors still satiate tough-on-crime concerns by highlighting their prosecutorial toughness. They are still susceptible to the humdrum logics of their institution, which runs on punishment. Larry Krasner ran for district attorney of Philadelphia on a promise to abolish cash bail. Since taking office, his attorneys have sought bail of $999,999 in 88 percent of first-degree felonies as well as in some drug-related and even misdemeanor cases, which has dispirited advocates.

Prosecutors are ineluctably part of the carceral system. Electing progressive prosecutors has empowered district attorneys to use their discretion better than their punitive counterparts. But the effort has not challenged or circumscribed the power of the prosecutor itself. The election or re-election of several progressive prosecutors elsewhere around the country shows that the policies are broadly popular — especially in working-class and multiracial cities. Yet the carceral nature of the job, together with the fundamentally technocratic approach to having a better person helm such a powerful position may also make it harder to build a proactive, ongoing base compared to other elected officials. There is no substitute to broad-based, ongoing campaigns against the carceral state.

No Shortcuts, No Easy Victories

A poll conducted shortly before Boudin’s recall found that likely voters favored several of his policies — sometimes by large margins — but also supported the recall. While election-night analyses proclaimed a blowout, the final results appear closer to what the May poll revealed — a defeat, not a disavowal. In fact, despite San Francisco experiencing an almost 7 percent drop in population during the pandemic, Boudin won more votes in the recall election than he did in the 2019 contest that elected him to office.

The local context explains some of this curiosity. Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in San Francisco, and the Republican-funded campaign to oust Boudin was accused of recruiting Black people to gather signatures in white neighborhoods in support of the recall. The campaign later ran advertisements where multiracial groups implored fellow Democrats to recall Boudin even in the name of criminal justice reform. Not surprisingly, opposition to Boudin came from many of the city’s whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods — a number of whom are certainly Democratic voters, carrying on a long tradition of liberal support for harsh punishment. Historians of San Francisco have shown how liberals helped fund segregation, bolster police power, and make use of ballot initiatives (like the recall campaign) to oppose fair housing, affirmative action, immigration, and other human rights causes under the veneer of democratic will. San Francisco’s steady transformation into an acropolis of high-tech capitalism has made the city wealthier, less Black, and more hostile to impoverished people — a combination that supports status-quo policing.

People vote on affect, and not just ideology, and surely many voters had legitimate grievances with Boudin. His radical pedigree — his parents were former Weather Underground members who spent decades in prison — fueled some of the dissatisfaction. Still, beyond the particularities of San Francisco, the recall suggests that we are in a curious interregnum. Years of organizing, protest, and publishing have solidified for many Americans that “mass incarceration” is bad. Yet a vast chasm separates that popular recognition from the infrastructure needed to end it — especially in the context of ongoing crime panic, which vastly overstates contemporary dangers in order to amplify status-quo injustice. The coordinated and bipartisan effort to render the uprisings of 2020 unthinkable has aligned dominant institutions behind a set of policies that may make some kind of subsequent upheaval inevitable. The recall of Boudin is inseparable from centrist efforts to oust other progressive elected officials like Rashida Tlaib (or to pull all the stops to block primary winners from taking office, as happened to India Walton last year in Buffalo) as well as the revanchist assaults on critical race theory, queer and trans people, abortion, voting rights, and so much else.

Progressive prosecutors were never going to be the primary path toward true decarceration. But if only because the alternative is so much worse, they still comprise a critical part of a larger decarceral strategy. A group of organizers compiled a primer for “abolitionist principles & campaign strategies for prosecutor organizing” that remains a relevant, clear-eyed appraisal for approaching district attorney races through anticarceral frameworks. But, as the document insists, “prosecuting offices must be stripped of power and resources.” That requires multifaceted approaches and infrastructure greater than the disorganizing power of the carceral state we oppose.

Progressive prosecutors were never going to be the primary path toward true decarceration. But if only because the alternative is so much worse, they still comprise a critical part of a larger decarceral strategy.

The contradictions and challenges facing progressive prosecutors as a strategy demonstrates why decarceration requires maximizing the infrastructure of gender, racial, environmental, and economic justice. Much as the right has tethered its fortunes to punishment as the necessary mechanism to enforce inequality in everything from border policing to abortion bans, one hopes that growing campaigns for worker rights, bodily autonomy, and climate protections will recognize their fates as linked in an anti-carceral public policy. Decarceration needs more than progressive prosecutors. It requires bold public defenders, city councilors, comptrollers, school board members, housing authority, mayors, governors, congressional representatives, presidents — ideally, working in tandem. But the only way to exercise that political power, and to withstand the organized and increasingly eliminationist opposition of law enforcement and the Republican Party, is through organized communities and strong movements. An elected official cannot be the face of a movement — all the more so when the official in question is a prosecutor.

As geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it, “abolition requires that we change one thing: everything.” A smaller project than abolition, decarceration nonetheless requires an ambitious and multifaceted struggle that won’t be resolved through electoral politics but cannot be entirely outside of it either. Mass incarceration is not a singular thing but a social relationship. It lives wherever budgets are set or policies enacted. And so it will need to be exorcised from every level of governance.

Mass incarceration is not a singular thing but a social relationship. It lives wherever budgets are set or policies enacted. And so it will need to be exorcised from every level of governance.

Yet American elections, where voting barriers meet corporate influence, are often places where popular will goes to die. In local metropolitan politics, perhaps none are more powerful — or more opposed to decarceration and associated expansions of care — than real estate developers and police and corrections officers’ unions. Reducing their power remains critical. The mechanisms for doing so — social housing and decriminalization, defunding police, growing non-carceral ways of meeting people’s needs, and responding to and above all preventing harm — are largely outside the purview of a district attorney. Shrinking the carceral apparatus, including the power of prosecutors themselves, remains an urgent task. And the only way to get there is through growing the power of democratic communities.

Image: Landry Gapangwa/Unsplash