Richmond Resident Kasie Lee: The first Chinese-American to Lead the District Attorney’s Victim Services Division
By Julie Pitta
Kasie Lee remembers one of the first times she encountered Chesa Boudin. It was 2019, and Boudin, a recently-announced candidate for district attorney, attended a meeting at the “Chinese Six Companies,” the more than century-old alliance of Chinatown community groups officially known as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.
The gathering was organized to discuss a disturbing increase in attacks against Chinese seniors at a time when few paid attention to crimes against Asian Americans. “I saw him seated in the back and listening intently,” Lee states. “It caught my attention because few politicians paid attention to Chinatown issues in the past, much less attended meetings like this one. In fact, other city leaders had sent proxies. When Chesa Boudin stayed for the entire meeting, I could tell he was committed to learning about our community’s issues.”
Today, Kasie Lee is the first Chinese-American to head the San Francisco District Attorney’s Victim Services Division. Since taking office on Jan. 8, 2020, Boudin has strengthened the victim services division, increasing the number of victim advocates and later requiring them to complete a rigorous training program. Many of the new hires are multilingual. He also added new advocates to support victims of property crimes.
More than 8,000 victims availed themselves of victim services last year—a record number for the district attorney’s office. They were served whether the crime was reported or solved by police or not. A data dashboard allows the public to track the division’s efforts.
Lee was appointed to the post in June 2021. Perhaps her proudest accomplishment is establishing a language access policy for non-English speaking victims. More than a third of the City is Asian-American; of those, many are monolingual Cantonese. There are numerous communities that make up this diverse City, including Latinx, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, and Middle Eastern most of which have limited English speakers. For them, grasping the complexities of the criminal justice system is all but impossible without court interpretation.
Being able to understand and meaningfully participate in court proceedings is guaranteed by Marsy’s Law, a victim’s bill of rights enacted by California voters in 2008. Before Boudin was elected, the district attorney’s office, like many city agencies, was not fully complying with the nearly 15-year-old law. Coming from a family of immigrants, Lee knew she needed to make the system more accessible for these populations. Chesa Boudin was immediately supportive.
“For a long time, I thought that our local government ignored crimes against Asian-Americans,” Lee says. “We were invisible. Allowing Chinese-Americans greater participation in the criminal justice systems allows us to be seen and heard.”
Leading the district attorney’s victim services team is a job Kasie Lee has trained for all her life.
Lee’s family story will be familiar to many Chinese-Americans. Both sides of her family passed through Chinatown before settling in other parts of the City. Lee’s maternal grandmother worked in a Chinatown garment factory; her paternal grandfather owned a popular eatery, Jim’s Coffee Shop (now Cafe Bakery) in the Sunset District.
Kasie Lee’s father, John, became the first in his family to attend college, studying computer science and engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. John Lee was among the students who successfully fought for the addition of Asian-American studies curricula to Berkeley’s course catalog.
As a child, Kasie Lee’s parents warned her that Chinese-Americans needed to fight for their rights in a society that offered them little respect. She recalls watching helplessly as her beloved grandfather was robbed after work. She also witnessed both sets of her grandparents – and other Chinese seniors in San Francisco – endure harassment and racial slurs on the MUNI.
In college, Lee became politically active, focusing on issues of concern to Asian-Americans. As an undergraduate at the University of California at Davis, she became a crisis counselor for Empower Yolo, creating the first outreach center for Asian-American and Pacific Islander survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in the Yolo County region.
As a 23-year-old first-year law student at the University of Southern California, Lee organized a successful campaign against the leading maker of Halloween costumes. Spearheading the first-ever online Asian American advocacy campaign, Lee forced the company, Disguise Inc., which created “Kung Fool,” a buck-toothed, slant-eyed vinyl mask, to recall the product from all retailers and issue a public apology.
After law school, Lee was a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, representing victims of domestic violence. She oversaw regular community legal clinics in Los Angeles Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and the Thai Community Development Center. She later served as an attorney in the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office for many years, handling severe felony matters, including life cases and homicides.
Eventually, Lee returned to San Francisco, starting her own law practice and continuing her advocacy for the AAPI community. She was the only Cantonese-speaking State Bar Certified Criminal Law Specialist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not all prosecutors and criminal trial lawyers qualify for this designation. She worked with Supervisor Gordon Mar to advocate for a Crime Victim Data Disclosure Ordinance in 2019, requiring the San Francisco Police Department to issue quarterly reports on victim demographics and the motivating factors for hate crimes.
Anti-Asian violence, individual and at the state level, is nothing new, Lee says. “It’s always been here,” she says. “People just haven’t cared until recently.” Last year, the district attorney’s office filed 20 hate-crime charges, a remarkable number for a crime often hard to prove.
There are no easy solutions to the problem of anti-AAPI crime, Lee says. Removing the district attorney, especially one attuned to the needs of this embattled community, will be a setback.
Kasie Lee says her heroes, civil rights activists like former San Francisco Supervisor Mabel Teng and Professor Bill Ong Hing, understand the need to reform a system that sends people to prison only to have them re-offend upon release. The only way to create a safer San Francisco is to break the cycle. She warns: “This requires community reinvestment – and only under DA Boudin have we been finally able to roll up our sleeves and do this work.”
Julie Pitta is a neighborhood activist. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. You can email her at email@example.com Follor her on Twitter: @JuliePitta