Crime, Incarceration, and "Reform" Prosecutors: Debate Continued
The debate continues between two writers on the progressive San Francisco DA's fall from grace and what it reflects about national debates over crime.
Editor’s note from Glenn Greenwald:
We are pleased to present the second part of our debate on crime and prosecutorial policy between Leighton Woodhouse and Ben Spielberg. The first installation — which contained an original statement from Ben, a rebuttal from Leighton, and then a further rebuttal from Ben — was very well-received by our readership here and provoked a spirited, enlightening and substantive debate in the comment section among subscribers: exactly what we believe good journalism should foster. This second installment — which begins with Leighton's rebuttal, is followed by Ben's response, and then concludes with Leighton's response to that — is, in my view, even better, as it further isolates and highlights the divergent underlying assumptions that drive these vital public policy debates about crime and punishment around the country. I hope the readership here finds this exchange at least as nutritious and thought-provoking as the first installment.
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(On a personal note: I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude for the outpouring of support, empathy and understanding from readers here in response to my August 16 note about the health crisis our family is enduring and how it is preventing me, for now, from writing here the way I would like to do. My husband remains in ICU and officially in critically condition, but has shown recent stability and even some improvements that give us more hope than ever for his full recovery. I hope and expect to be back shortly. And we will also very soon — this month, perhaps this week — unveil the new project I have been alluding to that I am certain will excite everyone here and dramatically expand the reach and impact of the journalism we do. In the meantime, thank you so much to everyone who reached out by email, in the comment section, and otherwise with such compassion and human decency. It really means a lot. Enjoy the debate.)
By Leighton Woodhouse
I have to admit I’m finding it to be a bit of a challenge to respond to most of the points in your rebuttal, in some cases because the relevance is lost on me and in others because they’re wholly unsupported by the facts.
But let me try to characterize each of your points in turn:
You begin by citing statistics about rates of economic inequality and high housing costs in San Francisco. I’m unclear on the purpose of this laundry list, as your disapproval of these indices is not a point of disagreement between us, nor do they represent anything over which the District Attorney has any control. I agree that San Francisco is an expensive city with a vast wealth gap, and that that’s regrettable. There’s no argument between us here.
You go on to claim that homelessness is the inevitable outcome of these economic conditions, stating blithely that it is not an addiction problem. I don’t understand what you base these claims on.
Judging from the various articles and blog posts you link to, the argument that homelessness is caused by the high cost of housing and not by drug addiction seems to be entirely based on a statistical correlation between the cost of housing in various cities and their respective rates of homelessness. That’s obviously not a causal argument. We could spend all day coming up with potential confounding variables that would complicate this simplistic narrative. But I would argue that there’s a better approach than just brainstorming alternative explanations, and that’s to go out in the field and talk to people. Qualitative research can often bring into clear view what is overlooked by the necessarily reductionist models of quantitative analyses such as the ones you’re apparently relying on.
Unlike most of the authors you link to, including some who call themselves social scientists, I’ve done exactly that. Michael Shellenberger and I have visited tent encampments up and down the state of California — in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and Fresno. We’ve shot hours of interviews with homeless people, much of which we’ve already made public and the remainder of which we’d be happy to.
Our method was simple: talk to anyone who would talk to us, which, as it turned out, was most people we approached. We asked them straightforward questions about how they became homeless, whether they would choose to take shelter if offered and under what conditions, and what their drug use habits were. Almost everyone was as plain and direct with us as we were with them.
From these interviews it was clear as day what we were looking at: the tent encampments in all of these cities are sites where people who are addicted to (principally) meth and fentanyl can acquire and use those drugs. That’s the reason they exist. These are places plagued by brutal violence, rampant theft and human trafficking, as people who live in them will tell you. The only reason people live there at all is because the power of addiction is so relentless that the fear of withdrawal eclipses the fear of any of those things.
I’m assuming from what you’ve said that you’re under the impression that urban tent encampments are full of people who moved there because they couldn’t find an apartment they could afford, and that many of them are not doing drugs. If that’s your impression, then it’s an easy enough one to reality check: You should go visit some of these camps and ask people yourself. I’ll go with you. They’ll tell you the same things they’ve told me.
I’m not sure what to make of your observation that “many people who are economically secure and have homes are addicted to drugs.” I’ll concede that’s true, but it’s neither here nor there. The fact that some people who are addicted to drugs live in houses and apartments doesn’t mean that the people who live in tents on the sidewalk are not primarily in that situation because of drugs. Some people have resources that others do not — family members who are willing to pay their rent, or bank accounts that haven’t yet been entirely drained.
In fact, we could go even further than you have in complicating this picture, and it would still bear out my argument: Many of the people who are “homeless” living in tent encampments do have houses and apartments they could go home to. I’ve interviewed at least a dozen parents of addicts. Most of them have spent years pleading with their kids to come home, where they could live for free if they wanted. Their children refuse, for one reason and one reason only: they’re addicted and need to stay close to the dealers. One recovering addict I know slept in doorways in the Tenderloin even though he owned a house in Daly City, just a short train ride away. Despite being a homeowner, he was still compelled to sleep on the streets because he couldn’t risk being more than a few minutes from the closest dealer when he got dopesick.
This all speaks to a fundamental problem with the way we speak about this issue. We call it “homelessness” but that’s a misleading descriptor. It’s an addiction crisis, one of the symptoms of which is living on the street.
Your argument that many homeless people “became addicted after becoming homeless” seems, likewise, academic at best. I suppose the utility of the argument is that if that’s true, you can keep blaming the cause of homelessness on landlords. But from a standpoint of what to do about homelessness, what difference does it make? If what’s keeping people homeless is substance abuse, then the solution remains the same: we need to treat people’s addiction to fix their lives. Building more housing or strengthening tenant protections or whatever your proposed solution is will undoubtedly help some people — mostly the working poor, in my opinion — but it won’t help the person who’s living in a tent because they have meth-induced psychosis and think aliens implanted a chip in their brain. That person will not be able to live functionally and autonomously in their own apartment even if the rent were a fraction of the market rate, until their addiction is treated.
Finally, you make the brazen claim that “most people experiencing homelessness are not addicted to drugs,” without so much as a hotlink to show it. What are you basing this quantitative claim on?
For the sake of this discussion, I want to make sure we agree on what we’re talking about: unsheltered homelessness. I make no claims about the circumstances of people living in homeless shelters, who tend to fit your characterization of the homeless much more closely than do people living in tent camps or on the streets. Typically, in shelters, you have to abide by rules, including curfews and on-site abstinence, which is why people who are drug dependent tend to avoid them (I know this because numerous homeless people have told it to me, on camera). Accordingly, people who reside in shelters are more likely to be temporarily homeless as a result of job loss or medical debt or eviction rather than indefinitely homeless due to drug addiction. Is the majority of the sheltered homeless not addicted? I have no idea; it’s not an issue I’ve reported on or looked into. I’m willing to grant for argument’s sake that they’re not.
But if you’re including that demographic in your definition of “the homeless,” then we’ve gone far afield from the topic at hand, since the office of the District Attorney has little to nothing to do with that population of people. In San Francisco, the DA’s concern is with people living on the streets. If that’s who you’re talking about, then I have no idea what the basis is for your claim that the majority of people living in tents on the sidewalk and sleeping in doorways are not suffering from addiction. It flies in the face of everything I’ve heard from numerous interviews with EMTs, social workers, psychiatric nurses, recovered addicts and Emergency Room workers, as well as extensive conversations with the unsheltered homeless themselves all over California. I’ve done enough reporting on this issue to be able to just say straight up that on this claim, you’re simply wrong.
I suspect that your reluctance to acknowledge the obvious — that people living on the street are there primarily due to drug addiction and untreated mental illness — comes from a concern that doing so will stigmatize the most vulnerable among us. I understand that concern, though I don’t share it. I think the reason I don’t share it is because I simply don’t think of the issue in those moralistic terms. Addiction is a disease, and those who suffer from it are victims of their afflictions. I don’t judge them for it any more than I’d judge someone for having cancer. Like anyone with a disease, addicts deserve treatment. But such is the nature of addiction that they’re never going to get it if we just sit around waiting for them to volunteer for it instead of taking forceful action to make it happen, for their sake as well as for our own.
I believe that those who think it’s “compassionate” to just let people rot to death on the streets, and who refuse to hold to account even the dealers who profit from perpetuating misery and who commit potential manslaughter with every baggie of fentanyl they sell, conceal a certain moral cowardice by dressing up their indifference in the language of social justice. I urge you and the readers of this exchange not to be taken in by these cynics, who will lead you to false solutions based on transparently dishonest assumptions. The people who will suffer the most from their specious policies are the unsheltered homeless themselves. In San Francisco, they have been suffering for decades from it already.
By Ben Spielberg
I think we’re talking past each other to some extent. This debate, as Glenn mentioned in his introduction, is supposed to be about San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin's recall and what it reflects more broadly on the issue of crime policies. That's what I've tried to discuss. You’ve exclusively focused on homelessness and drug dealing in the Tenderloin, however. While I agree we should be concerned about these problems, they represent only a fraction of the safety issues relevant to the debate topic, and the DA’s role in addressing them – especially homelessness – is limited, as I’ve already explained.
I’ve split my response into two parts below. The first addresses the issues you’ve emphasized. The second returns to the broader question of how to evaluate Boudin’s tenure and, importantly, how we should think about policies related to crime and safety. In both parts, I raise some questions I hope you will address in order to sharpen the focus on specific areas of agreement or disagreement.
Part 1: How We Know Homelessness Is Primarily an Economic Problem, and the Unclear Basis for Your Harsh Judgment of Boudin’s Approach to the Drug Trade in the Tenderloin
I commend you for taking the time to speak with people experiencing homelessness and would be happy to visit an encampment with you one day. But I hope you’ll acknowledge both that the group of people who agree to speak to you on-camera when you and Shellenberger approach them is not a representative subset of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness and that there is considerable risk of bias in such interviews, especially because you don’t have a published and replicable question list and methodology. It is simply invalid for you to use a relatively small set of these sorts of interviews to draw broad conclusions about the substantially larger group of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness – especially given the voluminous evidence contradicting those conclusions.
You’re right that the correlation between housing costs and homelessness rates doesn’t mean that high housing costs necessarily cause homelessness. Despite your contention that the rebuttals of Shellenberger’s work that I linked are “entirely based” on this correlation, though, they actually cite a lot more than that. They note, for example, that there is not a correlation between addiction rates and homelessness rates and that research examining potential causal links for homelessness confirm the primacy of economic factors. They also note that Shellenberger disregards voluminous evidence on the efficacy of “housing first” policies and misinterprets other homelessness research (as confirmed by the authors of said research).
Even people sympathetic to some of your points on this issue have concluded that “Shellenberger distorts facts to turn homelessness into a new front of the culture wars. Indeed, he does exactly what he accuses his left-wing enemies of doing: ignoring facts, best practices and complicated and heterodox approaches in favor of dogma.” The person who wrote that, by the way, spent a lot of time reporting on and even living in a tent city in Oakland that was home to both “many drug and alcohol users” and a variety of people whose situations had nothing to do with drugs: “a UPS worker who lost his job after a serious injury; former homeowners; a professional soccer player; a transgender DoorDash driver who moved from Louisiana to escape bigotry; and retirees and disabled persons whose Social Security checks of about $1,000 a month aren’t enough to afford them an apartment.”
In fact, in addition to the rebuttals of Shellenberger I cited, I linked two reports from a group who has talked to far more people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco – in a far more systematic and externally valid way – than you and Shellenberger have. I encourage you and anyone else interested in the facts on homelessness to check out the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness’s in-depth, interview-based research. This research finds that, while alcohol and drug use is a much more prevalent problem for people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco than for San Franciscans in general, it is not a problem for nearly two thirds of people experiencing homelessness in the city. The San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness also finds that people frequently move back and forth between unsheltered and sheltered homelessness (56% of the people they interviewed had experienced unsheltered homelessness in the past month and the plurality of their interviews were conducted in the Tenderloin).
I am honestly confused about how you can simultaneously argue that the bidirectionality of the link between homelessness and addiction for some people is irrelevant, acknowledge that addiction doesn’t result in homelessness in many cases because “[s]ome people have resources that others do not,” and contend that “people living on the street are there primarily due to drug addiction and untreated mental illness” rather than primarily due to not having resources, which is the definitional and evidence-based explanation.
Nobody disagrees, as I noted originally, “that many people experiencing homelessness struggle with addiction.” Nor does anyone disagree that people who are both homeless and addicted to drugs need help with both problems. But if you’re concerned only with that subset of people experiencing homelessness, and if you think addiction is a much more serious safety issue than someone not having shelter (which you call a “symptom”), it’s unclear why you are talking about homelessness in this debate at all.
Do you think unsheltered homelessness itself should lead to arrest and prosecution, as it has in San Francisco for decades?
I can’t imagine you do, but that’s the only reason I can think of for why someone would believe that “the DA’s concern [when it comes to homelessness itself] is [only] with people living on the streets.” If you agree with Boudin and me that things like “vagrancy” and “public camping” should not be illegal, I’d propose we give Boudin credit for declining to prosecute them and stop conflating homelessness with the issue you actually seem most concerned about: the drug trade.
Do you think drug use should be criminalized?
As I mentioned previously, “[w]hen it comes to drug use, you say you ‘agree that incarceration is not the solution,’ but you also seem to contend that rehabilitation would be best accomplished by threatening to incarcerate people for drug use.” The threat you seek obviously isn’t credible if incarceration isn’t actually on the table, so I think it’s important to clarify what that means: are you saying that Boudin should have sentenced some people to “years in prison” for drug use?
As I also mentioned previously, the evidence just doesn’t support the criminalization of drug use (which disproportionately targets people who are poor rather than wealthier people who use drugs) as an effective tool either at curbing drug use or helping people. In addition, as multiple rebuttals to Shellenberger that I linked explain, research finds that forcing people into drug treatment doesn’t work. Those are some of the reasons I oppose putting anyone behind bars for drug use and was glad Boudin scaled back this practice.
How do you think Boudin should have prosecuted people caught dealing drugs in the Tenderloin?
As I’ve repeatedly noted, “I agree that deterrence is an important goal” when it comes to dealing meth and fentanyl on the street. But as I have also explained, my understanding of Boudin’s approach to this issue is that he “filed charges when the police arrested people for dealing drugs at a higher rate than his predecessors; he just tried to take the circumstances of those arrested into account and speed up the conviction process, focused on the highest-level players who are behind drug dealing operations instead of on people selling small quantities of drugs on the street, and sought opportunities to divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues away from prison and into programs that are more likely to reduce recidivism than prison sentences.” This approach, as I also explained, is supported more by the research on deterrence than a more punitive approach involving long prison sentences.
If you disagree with elements of this approach, I’d really like to know what approach you think Boudin should have used with people caught dealing drugs. Should justice be blind to people’s circumstances? Should Boudin have trained his sights more on street-level dealing instead of on the more powerful people orchestrating street-level dealing? Do you contest the voluminous body of evidence on effective deterrence? Do you believe incapacitation and retribution – and not deterrence – should be the primary goals pursued in these cases?
What are the differences between the Tenderloin today and the Tenderloin pre-Boudin that cause you to judge Boudin’s impact there so harshly?
As I wrote previously, “The Tenderloin, as the Drug Dealing Task Force notes, ‘has been a hotbed for illegal drug activity for decades.’ While the task force also notes that ‘community members report that these problems have intensified in recent years,’ the trend in overdose deaths it cites clearly predates Boudin’s swearing-in ceremony in early 2020. These statistics present an obvious problem for the narrative that Boudin made [this] problem worse, especially given that the COVID-19 pandemic, which would be expected to exacerbate [this issue], was raging during pretty much his entire time in office.”
Given these points, how can you blame Boudin for the situation in the Tenderloin? Is there any actual evidence that his policies are responsible for illegal activity there? I’m curious about your assessment of past San Francisco DAs, as more punitive prosecutorial approaches have been tried before.
As I noted before, I don’t think a DA can make the Tenderloin a bastion of safety. Different public policy more generally could, but the DA doesn’t control most relevant policy levers. That’s why it’s strange to me that you’ve focused so much on the state of the Tenderloin in this debate – I think there are much more appropriate areas in which to judge a DA’s impact.
Part 2: Why Boudin’s Overall Approach to Crime and Safety Issues Was a Positive and Significant Improvement Over the Approach of Most DAs
I cited economic statistics in my last response because, as I explained, “[t]he 25% of San Franciscans who cannot afford basic necessities must navigate constant safety concerns.” Many of the people you’ve written about in this exchange – including people experiencing homelessness (both sheltered and unsheltered) and lots of families living in the Tenderloin – fall into this group.
Whose safety are you most concerned about?
I believe addressing the everyday safety needs of people who cannot afford basic necessities is a much higher priority than addressing the issue of more well-off San Franciscans not wanting to go “to a sizable part of the downtown of their own city because [they think] it’s neither pleasant nor safe to be there anymore.” Do you share this prioritization? Or, put differently, when you talk about the problem of people living on the street and/or suffering from drug addiction, are you arguing that we should optimize for their safety or the feelings of safety of other people with whom they might come into contact?
I appreciate that you say you don’t disagree about poverty and inequality being problems that come with major safety issues, but I can’t tell where you stand on this prioritization question. It’s a question that has lots of implications for how issues of safety and crime should be contextualized and addressed through public policy, and an affirmative answer to it is one of the bedrocks of the vision for the progressive prosecutor movement, so we obviously won’t agree on a good chunk of how to evaluate Boudin – or any other DA – if you answer it differently than I do.
Do you agree that mitigating or contributing to reversing state-imposed harm is a valid, important goal for a DA to prioritize?
As I laid out previously, I think “[t]he DA’s first principle, similar to a doctor’s, should be to do no harm. When government fails to protect people’s safety, that’s a definite problem, but it’s a far worse problem when government actively harms people, which has been an enduring feature of our criminal legal system…One of a DA’s primary obligations, in my view, is to work to end or at least mitigate [various] government-imposed safety issues.” Specifically, I’m wondering if you can comment on the following points I made:
“Under Boudin, for the first time ever, SFPD officers needed to think twice about using excessive force, as they knew they might actually face prosecution for doing so. Do you think Boudin holding police officers accountable for misconduct is an important factor to take into account when evaluating him? If not, why not?
“Boudin also started an Innocence Commission…during his first year in office to address wrongful convictions.” Are you concerned about wrongful convictions? Do you think Boudin’s creation of the Innocence Commission is an important criterion on which to judge him?
“Boudin also started [a] Post-Conviction Unit during his first year in office to…reduce excessive sentences. The Post-Conviction Unit has successfully resentenced 68 people…Boudin’s abolition of cash bail, general push towards diversion rather than incarceration, and hesitancy to seek long prison sentences has proactively reduced harm for thousands more people and their families.” Do you generally agree with the goal of the Post-Conviction Unit, the elimination of cash bail, and the pursuit of diversion over lengthy prison sentences (whether or not you debate the implementation of elements of this agenda in your responses to the questions I asked in Part 1)? Do they factor into your evaluation of Boudin?
Do you think Boudin deserves credit for his creation of an Economic Crimes Against Workers Unit?
As I explained previously, “[f]ar more money is illegally stolen from workers in wages across the United States each year than is stolen through robberies.” Do you think DA offices should more frequently prosecute wage theft, workplace safety violations, worker misclassification, and other types of corporate malfeasance that seriously impact workers’ economic situations and safety? If so, shouldn’t Boudin’s commitment to doing that factor into your assessment of him?
Given your stated belief that “the DA’s primary obligation is to each and every one of the” people harmed by crime, do you think Boudin agreeing with you on that “more than the typical DA,” as I previously noted, is an important factor to take into account when evaluating him?
Again, “Boudin significantly expanded the DA’s Victim Services Unit and implemented a broad set of initiatives for people who have been harmed by crime.” His office touts “[s]ecuring the largest grant in office history to expand victim-centered restorative justice approaches to harm” (emphasis his). What do you think of his initiatives in this space? Do you think he deserves credit for them?
Note that Boudin’s initiatives were generally aimed at providing people harmed by crime with support, not at allowing them to dictate the criminal legal system’s response to crime. I think that’s the correct approach – while it’s important to hear and consider the opinion of people harmed by crime on how crime should be prosecuted, and while their opinion is, as I mentioned previously, often aligned with mine, I prioritize successfully fulfilling the purposes of deterrence, rehabilitation, and restoration when doing so conflicts with the desires of someone who has experienced harm. If you would break from Boudin and me and prioritize the desires of an individual who has been harmed over the principles of the criminal legal system you support, I would be interested to know that as well.
Your first sentence in this exchange said “there’s much that we agree on when it comes to our broader vision of a just society.” I remain hopeful that is true. But I don’t think we’ll know until you clarify where you stand on and how you prioritize the individual elements of that vision –and, more broadly, the safety issues faced by the largest number of San Franciscans most of the time.
By Leighton Woodhouse
Your praise for Boudin comes down to these points:
Boudin didn’t prosecute people for public camping.
Boudin refused to prosecute people for drug use.
Boudin refrained from prosecuting low-level drug dealers.
Boudin tried to prosecute cops.
Boudin reduced excessive sentences and overturned wrongful convictions.
Boudin went after bad employers.
With the exception of the last one, these points all seem to boil down to this: you believe Chesa Boudin was a great prosecutor by acting on behalf of the Public Defender. And he acted on behalf of the Public Defender essentially by just not doing his job.
As a general point, that seems like a strange way to measure the success of a DA. But I don’t want to dodge your questions, so let me take each of them briefly in turn:
Boudin didn’t prosecute people for public camping.
You presumed in your piece that we likely agree that public camping “should not be illegal.” I actually don’t hold this view at all. I don’t believe it’s ok for someone to just pitch a tent on the sidewalk in front of your house, or in front of your kids’ school, and live out of it indefinitely. I also don’t think it’s ok for people to just unilaterally turn our parks and other public spaces into tent encampments. To be clear, I’m not just talking about homeless people — I don’t think the Boy Scouts of America should be able to just plop a bunch of tents in a park with nobody’s permission and camp out there indefinitely.
Our public spaces are precious. I don’t think it’s ok to turn them into open drug scenes. I guess I’m just not that much of a libertarian. I doubt the vast majority of San Franciscans are, either.
That doesn’t mean I think you should be thrown in jail for sleeping on the street. But I don’t give Chesa Boudin “credit” for the fact that more and more of San Francisco’s streets and sidewalks are crowded with people living out of tents, because he was content to just do nothing about it.
Boudin refused to prosecute people for drug use.
As I said before, I don’t think throwing people in jail for using drugs is the answer. I do — as I’ve also said before and as you’ve quoted me as saying — believe that the low-level crimes like shoplifting that inevitably accompany a life of addiction create an opportunity for the public to intervene in the lives of people who desperately need that intervention. That doesn’t necessarily mean jail, and in fact, it shouldn’t mean jail. If we had a functional system, it would mean mandatory in-patient treatment in a locked facility.
You can’t just wait for an addict to decide of their own free will to get clean, unless you’re prepared to live with the fact that they’ll almost certainly die of an overdose while you sit there tapping your fingers. That’s the nature of addiction. The criminal justice system, for better or for worse, is the only real tool we have to force people into the care they’re unable to seek for themselves, due to their chemical enslavement. So I also don’t give Boudin credit for refusing to use that tool to save people’s lives. But I will acknowledge that in the absence of a system of mandatory psychiatric and addiction care (which was what Michael Shellenberger ran for California governor to establish), neither Boudin nor any other DA has a lot of great options.
Boudin refrained from prosecuting “low-level” drug dealers
Here’s where you and I probably disagree most profoundly.
First of all, if you think the dealers in the Tenderloin and in SoMa are “selling small quantities of drugs on the street” then we have very different understandings of what “small” means. Street dealers in San Francisco make upwards of $1,000 a day, after paying off their suppliers, and they work six days a week. A hit of fentanyl that can kill you costs $5-$7. That is a very large amount of lethal drugs those dealers are moving, and a lot of blood on their hands.
Walk just a few blocks through UN Plaza and up into the Tenderloin at any time of the day or night and you’ll see dozens of bodies passed out in doorways or hunched over and barely standing. Every single one of them is supplied by those street dealers. Is that what passes for “low level” drug dealing in San Francisco?
But I also don’t buy this argument that it’s not worth busting street dealers, for a very practical reason: it’s how you disrupt the drug trade. Those street dealers are the cartel’s distribution network as well as its customers. They act as independent contractors, buying their supply in advance from the cartel’s distributors and then selling it retail. The reason they’re out there is because it’s a profitable business. If you crack down on the dealers and confiscate their stashes, they stop making a profit. Pretty soon they’re forced to stop buying from the cartel’s distributors. This is how you disrupt the drug trade.
If you think it’s too inhumane to imprison or deport these dealers (but somehow not too inhumane to let them continue to sell poison to our kids), then there are non-carceral workarounds you could embrace. Police could routinely take the dealers’ stashes and write them a receipt. They could put GPS trackers on the dealers they bust as a condition of bail, with orders to stay away from their corners, in lieu of incarceration. That way they can be free to live their lives but not free to sell drugs to our kids. But they’d need the cooperation of judges and the DA to make this happen. I wonder, Ben, if you’d support these kinds of measures?
The whole point is to drive up the cost of business for the drug trade, so the cartel stops making a fortune killing our children and destroying our families. If you think that merely using the tools of law enforcement to disrupt their business is somehow “oppressive” (I don’t know whether you’d got that far or not), then I’d suggest you’re not paying nearly enough attention to all the victims the dealers are stacking up. Because the more you let them get away with their crimes, the more of those victims there are. There’s no way around it.
Boudin tried to prosecute cops.
Boudin didn’t get a single conviction so I don’t see the value in this.
Boudin reduced excessive sentences and overturned wrongful convictions.
I have no problem with this, and if his record here was successful, then I commend him.
Boudin went after bad employers.
This seems more like the prerogative of the City Attorney, but if he had success in this, then he deserves credit for it.
Boudin and his supporters constantly resort to this “don’t trust your lying eyes” defense, claiming that as much as San Franciscans might think crime is going up, they’re actually dupes of nefarious right-wing propagandists, or suffering from false consciousness or something. There have been many, many games played with data that are too boring and tedious to get into here. But the most fundamental phenomenon that obscures the rising crime rate in San Francisco is that people just don’t bother reporting non-violent crimes anymore, especially theft and larceny. It’s like when the unemployment rate appears to drop because people have given up on seeking jobs.
Now you might think, who cares if Walgreens or Target or Safeway gets pilfered? They’re big rich companies, they can afford the insurance. But aside from the general social consequence of the spread of lawlessness, it’s important to understand that all this shoplifting is what fuels the drug trade. People aren’t stealing a dozen sticks of deodorant at a time for their own personal use. They’re not snatching five bags of frozen shrimp because they’re hungry. To be sure, there are some shoplifters who steal for their own consumption, but the bulk of shoplifting in San Francisco is the bottom rung of massive national and transnational fencing operations. The money fences pay for this merchandise goes directly into buying drugs from the street dealers, which in turn enriches the Sinaloa cartel. It’s easy to pretend this stuff is inconsequential but you have to look at the bigger picture.
The other thing Boudin’s supporters, yourself included, tend to do is to shift the focus to huge macro-level issues like inequality and poverty. I’ve argued that the homelessness problem in the Bay Area is mostly about drug addiction, not the economic issues you point to, though of course there’s always a mix of factors. But even if economic issues were the key factor, the District Attorney doesn’t have control over the policies that impact them, as you’ve conceded, to your credit. After a while, invoking these so-called “root causes” starts to sound like excuse making, or passing the buck to other policymakers. If Boudin didn’t think he could address crime and addiction without addressing poverty and economic inequality, he should have run for mayor or governor, not DA.
In judging Boudin’s brief tenure, the bottom line for most people is whether the city is better or worse off than it was prior to his election with respect to crime, addiction and open air drug dealing. You might point out that in asking that question, you also need to ask, “for whom”? So let’s tackle that question. Does the city seem like a better place now for most San Franciscans? The results of the recall election answered that question pretty decisively. Is life better now for homeless street addicts — are they safer? Are their living conditions improved? Walk through the Tenderloin and SoMa, look at how people are living, and ask yourself whether you can honestly answer “yes” to that question.
Lastly, is life better for the drug dealers, for whom you’ve shown so much concern? Yes, I would agree that it is. It’s been much easier for them to sell drugs without fearing any consequence more severe than the remote chance of losing their stash. When they are busted, they’re rarely incarcerated or deported and are able to easily defy court-imposed stay-away orders. They’ve been making more money more easily than ever before, and more people are dying as a result. This has been the upshot of Boudin’s tenure. I would call that record a dismal failure.
Benjamin Spielberg a co-founder of 34justice.com. He formerly worked in policy research, writing, and advocacy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and has been published by The Washington Post and The New York Times, among other outlets.
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