9 May 2020

Chesa Boudin - progressive DA and 'de-carceration' advocate

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 9 May 2020

San Francisco's recently-elected District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, has a unique perspective on the legal system.

His 75-year-old father David Gilbert, a former member of the radical left-wing group the Weather Underground, is in prison serving a life sentence for murder.

Boudin is a lawyer, writer and lecturer specialising in the US criminal justice system.

Chesa Boudin

Chesa Boudin Photo: supplied

His mission is to reform the American criminal justice system and reduce incarceration rates. His policies include challenging California's controversial 'three strikes' law.

San Francisco has dramatically reduced its prison population in recent years, he says.

“You have to remember that the United States leads the world in locking people up, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population we incarcerate more than 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

“And so, when you have a system that is so over reliant on incarceration, that has so many people needlessly in cages, it actually makes it relatively easy to safely reduce the total number.”

Because of his parents’ crime, both were locked up in 1981 when he was a baby, he grew up seeing prisons first hand.

“My earliest memories are of visiting him [David Gilbert] after going through steel gates and metal detectors, I’ve only known him through prison phone calls and prison visits.”

His father has served 38 years of a 75-year sentence, and Boudin says he is very concerned about the spread of Covid-19 in his father’s prison.

“He’s now 75 years old, he’s got serious medical conditions and just this past week the person living on his cell block, in the cell immediately next to him, was evacuated with Covid-19.

“I know that every time my father ventures out of his cell to the phones that are shared communally by all the other inmates he’s taking his life in his hands.”

He accepts his father’s crime and the damage it caused, but says he was not sentenced to death by virus in prison.

“The judge did not sentence him to die prematurely from a virus.”

Prisons in the US are ideal breeding grounds of the virus, he says.

“You’ve got people sleeping in dorm-style rooms with bunk beds, shared eating areas, shared bathrooms, very limited privacy.

“It’s virtually impossible to do all of the things that public health experts are telling us we must do. Social distancing is impossible for example, good hygiene - hand sanitiser is prohibited because it contains alcohol.

And so, the concern has been that once the virus enters a jail or prison it will spread like wild fire. We have seen that.”

A prison in Ohio is an example, he says.

“Over 70 percent of the people incarcerated [in the Ohio jail] have tested positive, in New York State, where my father is incarcerated, many prisoners have already died of coronavirus and over 1000 guards or correctional officers have also tested positive and some have died.”

He has filed a clemency petition for his father with State Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“He’s one of the oldest inmates in the entire state prison system and my father also has a perfect discipline record over the 38 years that he’s been in prison, not a single infraction on his record in 38 years.”

Mother was paroled 2003, he says.

“My parents did the same thing, their role in the crime was identical, but the nature of the American criminal justice system is so arbitrary that my mother was released after 22 years and my father is only half way through his sentence.”

He was raised by friends of his parents, he says.

“I was fortunate landed in a stable environment with a loving family.”

Although he doesn’t agree with the methods used by the Weather Underground, he understands the context in which such radicalised politics emerged.

“The war in Vietnam was a horrendous mistake that caused countless deaths and my parents were driven to extreme tactics in their efforts to fight against that war.

“I don’t support, or defend, the decisions they made but I recognise in my own parents something that is important for all to remember, especially when dealing with the criminal justice system and the kind of draconian lengthy sentences that have become normalised in the United States.

“We are all more than our worst mistakes. We can and do all change, we are not the same person that we were ten or fifteen - or in my father’s case 38 years’ ago.”

The American criminal justice system is broken, he says.

“A lifetime of visiting prisons, a lifetime of being directly impacted by our country’s addiction to incarceration, has taught me that the criminal justice system in the United States is badly broken.

“It is failing all of us, it is not providing victims with the services and support they need to heal.

“It is not rehabilitating people who have committed crime and it is not keeping us safe.

“And yet it is costing us billions of dollars a year, it is bankrupting local governments, it is destroying families and communities and with absolutely no tangible benefit to show.”

His own election campaign for DA, which centred on prison reform, was an uphill battle, he says.

“The Police Officers’ Association in San Francisco, in just the last 10 days of the election, spent well over $US650,000 in attack ads on me.

“Not even endorsing any of the other candidates in the race just attacking me with inflammatory fear tactics.”

Those ads focussed on his parents and branded him the son of terrorists, he says.

Now elected, he says he will work with police officers and their commanders, but the Police Officers’ Association is another matter.

“The Police Officers’ Association has been on the wrong side of virtually every single political issue in San Francisco politics for at least the last ten years.

“It’s disconnected, it’s isolated, it’s out of touch with San Francisco voters.”

The association is difficult to work with, he says.

“Most members of the association don’t live in San Francisco … they are committed to one thing, and one thing only, and that is the failed tough on crime policies, that led to the war on drugs, that led to mass incarceration, that exacerbated the horrific racial disparities we see in San Francisco and across the country.”

He will work with them however, If the POA, “remembers the values of the city it serves.”

“Virtually every candidate they’ve endorsed has lost, virtually every political issue they’ve taken sides in has lost, no matter how much money they throw at it over many, many years.

“That’s because they represent the most right-wing, reactionary policies that you see in some places in this country, but not in San Francisco.”

He says the fear of recidivism, which shapes public criminal policy, is distorted.

The Willie Horton case being a prime example.

“We know that some number of the people who we release from jail will go on to commit crimes, recidivism is a reality in the United States. Two thirds of the people released from prison in California will be back in prison within a couple of years of their release.

“That’s not something that lengthier sentence alone will fix, it’s imperative that I, and other elected officials, make our decisions not solely out of fear, but rather by looking at the data, by looking at public health and public safety and making decisions based on empirics and science.”