City’s new progressive DA Chesa Boudin takes office, vows to immediately change the system

Chesa Boudin faced intense opposition from police union, political establishment

Former public defender Chesa Boudin took office as San Francisco’s district attorney on Wednesday and outlined his plans to immediately begin reforming the criminal justice system.

Boudin delivered his inaugural speech at Herbst Theatre after being sworn in by Mayor London Breed.

He emerged victorious from a hard fought race in November during which Breed appointed his top opponent in the race, Suzy Loftus, as interim district attorney, and the police union spent big money on ads opposing him.

“Our criminal justice system is failing all of us,” said Boudin, 39. “It is not keeping us safe. It is contributing to a vicious cycle of crime and punishment.”

He told the nearly 1,000 gathered that “these failures have led us, as a community, as a nation, to accept the unacceptable.” Then he added, “Join me. Join this movement. Join us in rejecting the notion: That to be free we must cage others.”

During an interview with the San Francisco Examiner before his inauguration, Boudin acknowledged that he will have to work collaboratively with the mayor and police if he intends to remedy problems like car break-ins.

“A lot of people focus on what happened during the campaign,” Boudin said. “I know for me, and I think for the mayor, it’s water under the bridge.”

Before swearing him in, Breed said she and Boudin have a shared understanding that “there is a balance between justice and fairness.”

“I appreciate that Chesa Boudin understands that balance,” Breed said. “We can hold people accountable and we can make sure there is fairness in our criminal justice system. I am looking forward over the next four years of working with him to do just that.”

During his speech, Boudin, the child of radicals who were incarcerated for a robbery that led to the deaths of two police officers and a security guard, traced out his life from his childhood visiting his parents in prison to his freshman year at Yale.

After serving more than two decades in prison, his mother, Kathy, watched her son be sworn in at a packed theater in an audience that included public defenders, former mayors, police brass, and others.

His father, David, could not attend because he is still serving a sentence in a prison thousands of miles away. “He taught me that we are all more than our worst mistakes,” he said of his father. “Thank you for teaching me about forgiveness and redemption.”

Chesa Boudin speaks after being sworn in as San Francisco District Attorney at the Herbst Theatre on Wednesday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Chesa Boudin speaks after being sworn in as San Francisco District Attorney at the Herbst Theatre on Wednesday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The Rhodes Scholar, who campaigned on a platform of reducing mass incarceration, questioned the way the label “radical” has been applied to him.

“Radical simply means, ‘grasping things at the root,’” Boudin said, quoting his supporter, the activist Angela Davis. “For far too long, criminal justice policy has been shaking the trees, when the plant itself has rotted out. The solution lies beneath the surface.”

(There have been debates about how sympathetic Boudin will be to victims of crime, with some questioning if his policies will be empathetic to them and others arguing that he will stand up for crime victims.)

With his speech came the announcement of a series of immediate policy changes.

Boudin said he will end cash bail and “tough-on-crime” sentencing enhancements, launch a unit to consider the immigration consequences of prosecutions and stop filing cases stemming from “illegal searches” after a minor traffic violation.

“Stop and frisk — whether done while walking down the street or while driving a car — is a civil rights violation,” Boudin said.

Boudin also said he would implement a policy created by Loftus to better handle sexual assault cases.

Boudin will not be implementing these policy changes on his own. On Tuesday, he announced a lengthy list of criminal justice experts who will serve as special advisors on his transition team.

The team will be broken into committees including a Conviction Integrity Unit to review cases of alleged wrongful convictions and excessive sentences.

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