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Behind the loud pushback against progressive district attorneys across the country

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Nearly two years ago, San Francisco voters elected one of the most progressive district attorneys in the nation. And since becoming DA, Chesa Boudin has promoted the policies he said he would, like rolling back mass incarceration, ending cash bail and ending tougher sentencing rules for most gang members, among other major reforms. But now, amid a rise in crime, some San Franciscans are trying to kick him out of office. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Former Assistant District Attorney Brooke Jenkins is exactly the kind of ally DA Chesa Boudin, who's white, needs to help enact his reformist policies. Jenkins, like Boudin, sees the justice system as biased and broken.

BROOKE JENKINS: That is a part of the reason why I became a criminal prosecutor. I am half Black and half Latina and felt that bringing a diverse background into this role would help assist with those efforts.

WESTERVELT: But in a devastating blow, Jenkins last month resigned in protest and is now volunteering for Safer SF Without Boudin, the campaign to remove her former boss from office. A recall measure goes before voters here next year. Jenkins says the DA's office under Boudin is a chaotic, ideologically driven mess. The former public defender, she alleges, is an inexperienced and imperious manager who reflexively sides with offenders, including chronic and violent ones, by pursuing inexplicably lenient sentences.

JENKINS: We have seen public safety and the rights and needs of victims be disregarded. As crime has increased, he has made decisions not to hold perpetrators accountable in any fashion, and that is not reform.

WESTERVELT: Detractors blame Boudin's progressive policies on bail, gangs and restorative justice for opening the door to criminal mayhem. Unfairly or not, he's being blamed for everything from pharmacy closings to a spike in homicides. For Jenkins, it's personal. A breaking point for her was when her husband's 18-year-old cousin was murdered here. She says Boudin intervened to stop prosecutors from using gang enhancements, a move she says will likely undermine the case.

Jenkins is one of 40 attorneys who have resigned since Boudin took office. That's nearly a third of all attorney positions. The exodus, she says, leaves the most important units, including homicide and sexual assault, run by inexperienced prosecutors and former public defenders Boudin has hired from his previous office.

JENKINS: They have zero experience prosecuting cases, with only a defense background that oftentimes is ideologically opposed to criminal prosecution.

WESTERVELT: Boudin counters that her allegations and the recall effort cartoonishly misrepresent his record.

CHESA BOUDIN: Republicans, operatives, police unions are exploiting changes related to COVID and policies aimed at increasing racial justice to spread fear and undermine reform.

WESTERVELT: Boudin's emphasis on rehabilitation over punishment is influenced by his parents, who spent decades in prison as accomplices to murder and robbery as members of the radical leftist Weather Underground. San Franciscans, Boudin says, elected him to create real alternatives - scalable, restorative and social justice programs, not to simply put more Black, brown and poor people behind bars.

BOUDIN: The trademark policies of my administration - ending bail, creating an independent innocence commission to ensure that innocent people aren't languishing behind bars, creating a primary caregiver diversion program, expanding victim services - those are things that are both wildly popular among San Francisco voters and that are dramatically improving access to justice and public safety.

WESTERVELT: But almost no one here feels safer. Crimes, including assault, theft and homicides, are up in the city. Fatal drug overdoses and crimes against Asian Americans are, too. Over the weekend, dozens of criminals swarmed high-end stores such as Louis Vuitton and Hermes in San Francisco's Union Square in an organized smash-and-grab robbery frenzy that rattled a city already on edge about crime. Cannabis dispensaries here were also robbed.

Marisa Rodriguez heads the Union Square Business Alliance.

MARISA RODRIGUEZ: This is organized crime. These are people who have made a decision to come downtown and to commit vandalism and theft, and it has to stop.

WESTERVELT: Boudin and his supporters dismiss the recall movement as moneyed Republican and police union efforts to derail meaningful reforms. But, in fact, the recall group Safer SF has lots of political and ethnic diversity behind it, a fact they're showcasing in new TV ads. They include an African American dad whose toddler was recently murdered and an Asian American former head of the city's Democratic Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Communities of color.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I never in a million years thought that my son, let alone any 6-year-old, would be gunned down in the streets of San Francisco and not get any justice.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Chesa's failure has resulted in an increase in crime against Asian Americans.

WESTERVELT: Still, it's not clear the stream of ads and press releases denouncing Boudin is resonating with San Franciscans, says sociologist Patrick Lopez-Aguado, a criminal justice specialist at Santa Clara University.

PATRICK LOPEZ-AGUADO: I don't know that the noise of the backlash is necessarily representative of what most voters think or want.

WESTERVELT: The pushback against reformist DAs in other cities has been loud but so far largely unsuccessful. The fallout from Boudin's efforts at system-wide change is being closely watched by those advocating criminal justice reform nationally. Like the failed recall against Governor Gavin Newsom, Boudin says the backlash is being supercharged by pandemic angst and its historic disruptions to lives, businesses and the courts.

BOUDIN: Look; I've never been in office before 2020. It's a steep learning curve.

WESTERVELT: A somewhat chastened Chesa Boudin insists he's learned from his stumbles, including, he says, the need to do a much better job communicating the why and how of his reforms.

BOUDIN: Of course I've made mistakes, and I've learned a tremendous amount about my office. There's room for improvement, and I'm committed to doing better in the months and years ahead.

WESTERVELT: Boudin responded to the recent organized robbery attacks downtown, sounding more like a traditionalist than one of the nation's most progressive reformers. Boudin, on Twitter, denounced what he called the looting, praised the swift police response and added of those arrested, standby for felony charges. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.