District Attorney Chesa Boudin said prosecutors are carrying high caseloads due to a staffing shortage. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>

District Attorney Chesa Boudin said prosecutors are carrying high caseloads due to a staffing shortage. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

‘Severe’ understaffing at DA’s office could harm cases

Boudin seeks approval from Breed to fill positions

District Attorney Chesa Boudin is calling on Mayor London Breed to remedy a “severe” staffing shortage in his office that threatens to harm criminal prosecutions unless key positions are filled.

The District Attorney’s Office has reached a “tipping point,” with a single prosecutor in the General Felonies Unit handling as many as 229 cases a year compared to the national standard of 150 cases, according to Boudin.

The shortages have also impacted the homicide and domestic violence units.

“Staff who have left the office have expressed deep concern about the extreme caseloads, and a fear that the high volume of cases will cause them to make an inadvertent mistake in the handling of their cases; mistakes that can have severe ramifications for their license to practice law,” Boudin recently wrote to Breed and other officials.

Every department head including Boudin has been unable to fill vacant positions without prior approval from the Mayor’s Office since the pandemic prompted Breed to issue a hiring freeze for all but essential workers.

The City had to close a $1.5 billion deficit earlier this year and now has another $116 million hole to fill based on the latest projections that the Controller’s Office released Nov. 10.

“This is a difficult time for The City, and for our residents that requires hard choices,” said Sarah Owens, a spokesperson for Breed. “All City departments, including the District Attorney’s Office, have to focus on delivering basic city services and top departmental priorities first and foremost.”

San Francisco was “staring down an economic catastrophe” when Breed issued the citywide hiring freeze, Owens said.

“This was not limited to any single department, but applied to all departments,” Owens said. “Any department that wanted to fill any vacant positions has been allowed to present on why that position is essential. Many departments have presented positions they wanted to fill and have been denied that request.”

David Campos, Boudin’s newly hired chief of staff and a former city supervisor, acknowledged the fiscal challenges ahead but said the new deficit “doesn’t really change the reality that we face.”

“The bottom line is that we are trying to increase staffing in our attorney ranks,” Campos said. “Our staff and our attorneys are working very hard to keep things going but when you are so overextended there is a real fear that that is going to impact your effectiveness in certain cases.”

Campos said the office is facing a “perfect storm” between chronic understaffing dating back to before Boudin took office, a drug scandal at the Medical Examiner’s Office requiring a review of some 2,500 cases and the extra resources spent on preventing a COVID-19 outbreak behind bars by reducing the jail population.

Boudin has asked or plans to ask Breed to fill about 10 or 11 positions ranging from the director of research and analytics to leadership roles in investigations, as well as line attorneys in homicide and domestic violence, Campos said.

The mayor has approved four of his eight requests thus far, according to her office.

That includes the chief of staff position which Campos filled and a captain of investigations, according to Campos.

The District Attorney’s Office has experienced significant turnover since former District Attorney George Gascon announced last October that he would step down to run for office in Los Angeles.

In one of his first acts after winning the election last November, Boudin also fired a half dozen or so prosecutors in January, including the head of homicide. He has since restructured his office to replace the homicide manager position with a more senior chief who only oversees homicide and reports directly to Boudin.

Campos said the District Attorney’s Office already has the more than $1 million required to fill the 10 or 11 positions under its current budget, and simply needs approval from the mayor.

“Letting us fill these really critical basic positions is really necessary,” Campos said.

The director of research and analytics position, for example, helps prosecutors analyze their work to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and change their practices, Boudin said in his letter.

The position has been empty since the beginning of 2020.

Filling the vacant positions is “critical to the administration of justice in our city,” Boudin said.

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously stated Boudin had only filled the head of homicide position on an acting basis.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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