A Liberal Experiment on Policing

San Francisco / November 19, 2019
San Francisco recently elected Chesa Boudin as the next district attorney. His election was a surprise. The establishment opposed him. Governor Gavin Newsom and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris supported his opponent, interim District Attorney Suzy Loftus. The police union called Boudin the "#1 choice of criminals and gang members".
Mr. Boudin is controversial because of his biography and views. His parents were leftwing radicals in the Weather Underground who went to jail for serving as getaway drivers in a 1981 car heist. Boudin was 14 months old at the time. He was raised by Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, two leaders in the Weather Underground movement. He earned a bachelor's degree from Yale, studied at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and earned a law degree from Yale. Between Oxford and Yale Law School, he moved to Veneuzuela and served as a translator for Hugo Chavez. The stint under Chavez terrifies many wealthy liberals in San Francisco.
Boudin wants to change law enforcement strategies so that fewer people on lower incomes and racial minorities go to jail. There is a significant body of liberal research showing that American society responds to problems in lower income and minority communities through criminizalization. Teenagers in these communities pickup criminal records that stunt their career and life development.
Liberal theory on over-criminalization sounds compelling in an academic seminar, but it's different to implement in practice. For example, Boudin needs police officers to implement his strategies. The San Francisco Police Officer's Association opposed his candidacy. At Boudin's election night party, chants of "f*ck the POA" broke out. Mr. Boudin must humbly seek to earn the respect of police officers and law enforcement officials if he wants his strategies to have any chance of success.
Also, liberal theory calls for addressing the root causes of anti-social behavior. When I first moved to California, I lived in a co-op in Berkeley. Every few weeks, local teenagers would break into the co-op and commit petty theft. We could have responded by filing a police complaint and seeking to prosecute the perpetrators. Instead, we viewed the perpetrators as children who were bored. Their creative energies were not fully engaged by the school system. They should have been in afterschool programs learning to play instruments, paint, or play soccer and basketball. In an ideal world, the government would raise taxes on the superwealthy to fund afterschool programs. There is a significant community of artists and creative types who struggle financially and would gladly give lessons in exchange for compensation. In a liberal's paradise, those bored teenagers would not pickup criminal records. Their talents would be guided towards higher pursuits.
During the campaign, Boudin talked about addressing the root causes of anti-social behavior. But in practice, his span of control is limited. He is not in a position to invent new afterschool programs to channel the energies of understimulated teenagers. When Mr. Boudin changes law enforcement strategies in San Francisco, he should recognize that other pieces in the social order must be in place for liberals to truly implement their dreams of reinventing criminal justice. Therefore, Boudin should make small changes in the policing and enforcement strategies. He should run small and adaptive experiments. Many liberals want Mr. Boudin to be a successful district attorney and set an example that triggers a revolution in criminal justice across the United States. He is in a position to spark a significant change, but he must be practical.