By Janice Bressler
Four candidates running to become San Francisco’s next district attorney (D.A.) took the stage at the Richmond Recreation Center on July 17 to pitch their ideas on how to make the city safer and more just. The lively panel discussion, hosted by the Planning Association for the Richmond (PAR), offered the assembled neighborhood crowd a slew of proposals for tackling some the city’s toughest problems, including drug addiction, homelessness and car break-ins.
The candidates vying for the D.A. job are: Chesa Boudin, San Francisco deputy public defender and criminal justice reformer; Leif Dautch, California deputy attorney general; Suzy Loftus, assistant chief counsel in the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and former president of the Police Commission; and Nancy Tung, Alameda County deputy district attorney
PAR president Kate Lazarus moderated the panel and kicked things off by inviting the candidates to introduce themselves. Dautch said that his interest in criminal justice started with his mom, who was a nurse at his town’s local juvenile hall. Loftus, a San Francisco native, talked about growing up in San Francisco, being raised by an immigrant mother who is, in her words, “the best American I know.” Tung focused on her strengths as a career prosecutor and said if elected she could “hit the ground running.” Boudin stressed his commitment to reforming a “broken criminal justice system” and traced that commitment back to his earliest childhood – his parents, members of the militant anti-war group the Weather Underground, who were both sentenced to long prison terms when he was a small child.
The record levels of homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness on the city streets were among the key issues addressed by the panel. All candidates agreed that San Francisco is facing a “humanitarian and public health crisis” and the word “compassionate” came up often as the candidates discussed how they would address these problems if elected D.A.
“As a native San Franciscan, it’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” Loftus said. She said that she would support safe injection sites, facilities where intravenous drug users would be provided clean needles and could shoot up off the streets and under supervision. She’s also a supporter of mental health diversion programs.
“Studies have shown that forced treatment during incarceration just doesn’t work,” Loftus said.
Lief proposed using Juvenile Hall, which will be closed down in 2021, and turning it into a “mental health justice center,” a city facility that would offer public mental health services from crisis counseling to inpatient psychiatric care.
Boudin talked about the crucial need to make drug and mental health treatment more accessible. He said that to do this effectively, other city agencies must “step up” and make greater investments in this area so that the D.A.’s resources can be focused on serious and violent felonies. In his public defender work, Boudin said he often represents defendants wrestling with addiction and/or mental illness. He told the audience that one of his clients put the problem this way: “In San Francisco, it’s easier to get high than to get treatment.”
Tung’s position on the issue is that “yes, we need to be compassionate. But we also need to hold the pharmaceutical companies and the pill mill doctors accountable.” If she is elected as D.A., Tung said she would prosecute those corporations and businesses for their role in the opioid epidemic.
The candidates also staked out positions on how they would address the explosion of car break-ins in the City – the number has tripled since 2011. Lief said that the current D.A. is not taking enough car break-in cases to trial. He argued that the main source of the problem comes from organized crime rings outside of San Francisco.Tung agreed that there is “no meaningful prosecution of car-break-ins (in San Francisco)” and vowed to change that if elected.
Loftus argued for a more nuanced neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to car break-ins and touted her experience collaborating with neighborhood groups. Boudin, too, said that the problem of car burglaries has more than one source – many perpetrated by outside, organized rings, but many others by the mentally ill and the homeless. He called for collaborative solutions involving more than just the local D.A.’s office. Boudin also said that the victims of car break-ins, as well as victims of violent crime, would be given more attention if he becomes the new DA. “We need to give victims (of crime) a voice,” he said.
When George Gascon, the current D.A., announced earlier this year that he would not seek re-election, this became the first San Francisco D.A.’s election in more than 100 years with no sitting D.A. in the race. The candidates panel at the Richmond Rec Center made another thing clear about this year’s D.A. election – the choice that voters make in November could have deep and lasting consequences for the Sunset District and the entire City.