By Joel P. Engardio
Special to The Examiner
After being stonewalled by the district attorney’s office in San Francisco, a local journalist vented her frustration on Twitter. The outrage? She was trying to access records that should be publicly available.
Annie Gaus, of the San Francisco Standard, asked for the disposition memos that reveal the final outcomes of criminal cases. Chesa Boudin’s office denied the request, saying there were no relevant public records to her query — and if any did exist, those documents were “privileged.”
“I can’t emphasize enough what a load of horsesh-t this response is,” Gaus said on a Twitter thread that posted the letter she received from the district attorney’s office. “At a certain point, you gotta wonder why they’re so adamant about keeping this info from the public.”
When I asked Gaus why she didn’t mince words in her tweet, she said it was out of exasperation that Boudin’s office claimed disposition memos are attorney work product while “ignoring the fact that they have a duty to disclose what is disclosable, which includes procedural and case details that are otherwise in the public record.”
I understood why Gaus was so annoyed.
Outcomes of cases matter more than charges
Boudin publishes a data dashboard called DA Stat, which he promoted in November as newly improved with more functions. The dashboard promises to share “prosecutorial data and metrics,” and Boudin touted the website as “committed to transparency.”
The existence of DA Stat should negate the need for journalists and groups like Stop Crime SF to file public records requests.
But there’s a big problem with Boudin’s DA Stat, as city leaders and former prosecutors have noted. Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who began her career as a deputy district attorney, told NBC News that DA Stat “certainly doesn’t tell the full story.”
The database doesn’t report what happens to cases beyond the filing of charges. This makes it difficult to measure Boudin’s effectiveness because the outcomes of cases — not mere charges — are what matter. And outcomes are a mystery on DA Stat.
Lately, Boudin is talking a lot about his willingness to charge crimes.
“I’ve filed more than 8,000 new criminal cases since taking office,” he recently tweeted.
He’s even started using the “law and order” language he criticized when he was a candidate for district attorney focused on justice reform.
“I’m outraged by the looting,” Boudin tweeted last month after stores in Union Square were hit with a wave of mob thefts. “Stand by for felony charges.”
Boudin faces a recall election in June, which seems to have put pressure on him to show he can be tough on crime — at least in press releases and tweets.
But it’s impossible to determine Boudin’s actual performance when DA Stat doesn’t provide the sentencing information and final disposition of each case.
For example, a rape case might have started with a rape charge. But the “conviction” noted in DA Stat could be for a lesser charge or a sentence to probation.
Without knowing how Boudin defines “conviction,” it could mean anything from a plea deal to a diversion program. It’s also unclear what happens in a multi-count case when separate crimes are combined. Is it a “conviction” when there is a plea in just one count and all the more serious charges and additional counts are dismissed?
Boudin says he has charged 8,000 cases. Here’s what the public deserves to know about those cases that DA Stat isn’t telling us:
- How many of the charges resulted in trials, diversion programs, plea deals or were dropped altogether?
- Was the defendant released before trial? If so, were they parolees or repeat offenders with outstanding warrants or pending cases?
- Did the defendant have any other charges or other pending cases that were dismissed as part of a plea bargain?
- Was the defendant convicted of a lesser offense than what was originally charged?
- Was the final outcome a felony or misdemeanor conviction?
- Is the case still pending? Was it dismissed or discharged? Was there a conviction or acquittal? Was a jail sentence imposed and for how long?
Pursuing data for all
While the Standard and Stop Crime SF were denied public records requests, Boudin’s office said yes to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The resulting Chronicle article was headlined: “We obtained never-before-seen data on how Chesa Boudin is prosecuting cases.”
But the article included only data that Boudin’s office was willing to provide. And while the Chronicle reported on charging and conviction rates for certain crimes, the article didn’t say how Boudin defines “conviction.” The Chronicle article also didn’t address the many questions left unanswered on the DA Stat dashboard.
Was the district attorney’s office willing to work with a news outlet it deemed “friendly,” while being less forthcoming with data requests from other journalists and community groups like Stop Crime SF?
Boudin’s office gave the Chronicle data it had withheld from Stop Crime SF weeks earlier.
Stop Crime SF is committed to pursuing data for all to see, so we retained attorney Karl Olson. He specializes in California Public Records Act litigation and has twice won at the state Supreme Court.
Olson threatened litigation if Boudin’s office did not immediately give us everything it already had given to the Chronicle. The night before Thanksgiving, at 8:47pm, we received an email with the data.
As Olson continues to push Boudin’s office to comply with the entirety of our records request, all data we receive will be published on the Stop Crime SF website for anyone to review. We asked for all sentencing outcomes from cases filed by Boudin.
Lessons from Chicago and the ACLU
It shouldn’t take threatened legal action to get crumbs of data selected by the district attorney’s office for one media outlet. All reporters, researchers, crime victims and residents deserve to see the full data with ease.
San Francisco lacks a transparent, accessible and comprehensive tracking of cases from start to end. Boudin should follow the example of Kim Foxx, the progressive district attorney in Chicago.
Foxx has a data dashboard that lets residents see what’s happening with thousands of cases from initial charge through final sentencing.
Everything we asked for in San Francisco about felony cases can be found easily online in Chicago. Case numbers and names are randomized to avoid misuse of the information, but journalists and researchers can access the full record with a special use agreement.
Why can’t we have a data dashboard like this in San Francisco?
Perhaps Boudin will embrace the fact that the ACLU has called for “comprehensive and mandatory transparency from all prosecutors.” If Boudin resists, the ACLU is supporting legislation to “set minimum transparency standards for elected prosecutors, ensuring that they collect and make public data and policies so they are available to the communities that they serve.”
Safety and justice should go together. Justice reform is necessary. And for it to work, residents must feel confident public officials are doing their job to keep everyone safe. That starts with asking officials to put all crime data in the open.