Based on your latest column, a “Letter to San Francisco’s new DA Chesa Boudin,” we can agree on this much: San Francisco’s criminal justice system needs substantial reform before it is fair and equal, and treats everyone, including crime victims, with dignity and respect. The status quo of criminal prosecutions has long fallen short of those ideals.
But I was alarmed at your misguided speculation that DA-elect Boudin is incapable of leading that reform because he’s a former public defender. You suggest that public defenders, dedicated to representing some of the most marginalized and vulnerable members of our community, cannot “sympathize” with crime victims, and that a former public defender in the role of prosecutor will come at the expense of victims.
In fact the exact opposite is true.
As a survivor of sexual assault and advocate for victims, I have witnessed how prosecutors, and their singular focus on criminal convictions, fail to meet or even consider the needs of victims. Public defenders, on the other hand, defend people who have experienced severe trauma — people who have been crime victims themselves and who, in some cases, committed crimes because their trauma was never addressed. This experience leaves public defenders uniquely qualified to work with people harmed by crime.
But your concerns are not only misplaced, they reflect dangerous misconceptions that have fueled a national mass incarceration crisis — a crisis that reform prosecutors like Boudin and others around the country have been elected to undo.
First, you wrongly assume that the prosecute-and-punish status quo serves victims well. While “protecting victims” is often the excuse for seeking harsh criminal penalties, victims who want or need anything different are pushed aside. They are excluded from the process, afforded few if any options, and treated like they are all the same, without regard to individual needs. Poor or otherwise marginalized victims are routinely ignored altogether.
In contrast, Boudin offers a victim-centered approach that is focused on prevention, not punishment. He has said he will give victims a voice and include them in prosecutors’ decision making. He has pledged to hold the powerful accountable, seeking justice on behalf of those who most need the law’s protection. And his policies address the root causes of crime — poverty, drug addiction, mental illness, trauma — to prevent crime and reduce the number of crime victims in the first place.
It’s also a myth that victims and perpetrators neatly divide into different categories. The discrete “communities” you describe of “those who commit a crime,” on the one hand, and crime victims, on the other, do not exist. In reality, people who commit crimes have often been victims themselves, and the very people we are supposed to be caring for are failed by a system whose primary if not only solution is prosecuting people and locking them up. Boudin recognizes this cycle of harm and has early intervention policies to break it.
Finally, Boudin embraces the reality that different victims have different needs. The traditional adversarial process provides one option: the person who causes harm is prosecuted and sent to prison. One of the things I resented most in the aftermath of my attack was being funneled into an adversarial proceeding with no opportunity for answers or an apology from the person who assaulted me.
Conversely, Boudin will give all victims the option of pursuing restorative justice, a process of reconciliation between the victim, offender, and community. Restorative justice provides real opportunity for healing and accountability. It’s irresponsible to suggest, as you do, that certain victims will be “pressure[d]” into this process, and I wonder why you would oppose providing victims with more options over the one-size-fits-all approach that so often fails them.
Ultimately, what you present as Boudin’s main weakness — his work as a public defender — is one of his greatest strengths. He has seen the cycle of incarceration up close. How it ensnares victims and creates perpetrators of crime. How it divides families and destabilizes communities, creating environments where everyone is less safe. He has, in fact, represented victims of crime, many of them, and has insight into what they need that the current system has failed to provide.
Stefanie Mundhenk Harrelson is a JD/MA student at Georgetown University. Her own experiences with sexual assault inspired her to study criminal law and restorative justice solutions for sex crimes.