At the time of writing, we are entering into the Nov. 8 general election, which will decide, among other things, the fate of the San Francisco District Attorney office. Vying for the position are four candidates of varying experience and background: Brooke Jenkins, John Hamasaki, Joe Alioto Veronese, and Maurice Chenier.
Whoever is elected will bear the responsibility of increasing public safety, actively listening to the public, and enacting criminal justice reform. Given the immense influence of the role, it is imperative that San Franciscans hold the new DA accountable to promises of criminal justice reform.
The Thurgood Marshall Institute lists the DA’s powers, including the power to investigate accusations of crime and bring charges, as well as the power to review old cases for possible wrongful conviction.
The DA can also create alternatives to incarceration and create “specialized units” to address “prevalent issues within the community.” This means the DA can address the root causes of crime, as opposed to defaulting to policing and mass incarceration.
In 2020, under then-DA Chesa Boudin, the DA’s office established the San Francisco Restorative Justice Collaborative. According to their website, the collaborative aims to “repair the relationship between the Asian American and African American communities in San Francisco,” and to “generate long term healing, rather than a band-aid response to high-profile incidents.” The collaboration works with several youth outreach programs and community organizations.
The role of DA is a tightrope of balancing differing views on how to achieve criminal justice. Despite the progress Boudin’s office made with the collaborative, his term came to an abrupt end with the 2022 special recall election.
Only 46% of San Francisco’s eligible voters showed up to the polls for the recall, and of those voters 55% voted in favor of ousting Boudin. Mayor London Breed appointed Brooke Jenkins as the interim DA in his place.
Jenkins is facing a mix of support and backlash over the ambiguities of her stance on criminal justice reform. Upon starting in the role of DA, Jenkins said she was “progressive,” but in the same breath advocated for policies known to disproportionately penalize low-income folks and people of color. These include giving prosecutors the discretion to charge juvenile offenders as adults and the power to request cash bail as well as gang enhancements.
Given the blatant racial disparities within San Francisco’s justice system, the city needs a DA that prioritizes racial justice. According to research conducted by the San Francisco City and County Safety and Justice Challenge Innovation Fund, the per capita rate of incarceration for Black people in San Francisco is 17 times higher than white people — with men of color typically receiving longer sentences than their white counterparts.
Over this past year, we have seen the ways voting and petitioning for recall has impacted the DA’s office. Most recently, protestors at San Francisco State University caused Jenkins to leave a debate over her perceived decision to delay the trial of SF police officer Chris Samayoa, who is facing manslaughter charges for the death of Keita O’Neil.
San Franciscans must stay committed to holding the DA accountable and driving forward change. While the conversation around racial justice and criminal reform often ends in a stalemate, we should expect the DA’s office to take concrete steps to ensure equity.