Issues of crime and punishment are among the hardest we deal with as a society. Victims deserve justice. Our communities deserve to live safely. Those who come before our courts must have their rights respected and a fair, constitutional process. And we cannot ignore that incarceration can have wide-ranging consequences both for those in jail and for their families and communities.
As a judge, I saw countless cases come before our courts. It was my duty to weigh the facts and rule fairly. By the same token, I believe the people of San Francisco deserve the facts about the recall targeting District Attorney Chesa Boudin. To start, we have to look at the chief argument of recall proponents: that crime has gone up and that rise is directly attributable to Boudin.
Wrong on both counts: Neither assumption has any basis in fact.
As reported recently, violent crime is near its lowest level since 1975. Crimes such as rape, assault and robbery have actually gone down by double digits since DA Boudin was sworn in last year. In fact, the conviction rates of Boudin and predecessor George Gascón are almost identical, but Boudin’s is 5% more successful.
A recent report of the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that over-zealous prosecutions can lead to worse outcomes. In that study, a high prosecution rate of first-time misdemeanor offenses led to more crime, not less. The authors theorize that it could be that putting minor offenders into the criminal justice system leaves them with fewer and worse options than other forms of rehabilitation as they are cut off from educational, employment, and housing opportunities.
District attorneys are themselves limited by information brought to them. Approximately half of all violent offenses never even get reported for a number of reasons. And of those reported, police fail to make an arrest in a similar substantial portion. For example, in San Francisco police only make arrests in around 9 percent of reported burglaries. Put simply, prosecutors cannot move forward on cases if the police don’t provide the evidence to convict.
As a 35-year member and two times president of the Association for Criminal Justice Research of California, I can say with authority that these issues are studied in depth by experts so that jurisdictions like ours have fact-based evidence on which to make policy decisions, not just anecdotal examples of a few unfortunate cases.
This is quite important. Although it is clear we cannot ever eliminate crime, which has been in society for thousands of years, we can work to reduce recidivism and recreate lawful citizens. It is neither easy nor simple to accomplish this goal, but pulling people out of the criminal arena when their crimes are often primarily substance-abuse related would be well worth the effort.
Theft is borne often of poverty, as is homelessness. Likewise, substance abuse is related as a method of making these circumstances more bearable, explaining why increased access to mental health services, community-based solutions and stronger social networks can act to prevent crime.
Incarceration is imperative for heinous crimes, but not necessarily for all lesser crimes. Jailing defendants pretrial, i.e., before any trial or conviction, if based solely on a defendant’s inability to post bond, has now been disallowed in California by our own California Supreme Court. It is more costly to house a misdemeanor or pretrial defendant in our county than it is to put a student through Stanford. Putting our funds into more effective programs often creates an improved result.
Crime is not created nor governed by a single prosecutor. Our district attorney, like any prosecutor, inherits a wealth of problems. These are issues which cannot be solved without the efforts of numerous justice and law enforcement agencies. This does not happen with a snap of the fingers. We need to give our justice agencies and our elected District Attorney Chesa Boudin the opportunity to demonstrate a positive effect in our overwhelmed system.
When I sent a jury to deliberate, I always instructed them to look at the facts. In this recall, I urge San Franciscans to do the same — look at the facts and understand the lack of effect that a recall would have on crime in San Francisco. And I hope you’ll join me in opposing this wasteful effort to undermine our elections and our choices as voters.
Judge Tomar Mason served for 21 years in both the criminal and civil divisions of San Francisco Superior Court, including as presiding judge.