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    This November, We Could End Mass Incarceration in San Francisco

    By Peter Gallotta–

    When Chesa Boudin was just 14 months old, his parents dropped him off with a babysitter and never came back. That day, they drove a getaway car in a robbery that tragically took the lives of three men. Growing up, Chesa became all too familiar with the experience of going through metal detectors and steel gates to give his parents a hug. Today, he’s one of the most outspoken voices for criminal justice reform in the country. And this November he’s running to be San Francisco’s next district attorney.

    Chesa’s personal story distinguishes him in this race, but so does something else. He’s a public defender. In the criminal justice system, public defenders represent people accused of crimes who are unable to afford their own legal representation. They face off with the district attorney’s office to ensure their client receives fair representation and a fair trial before a judge.

    Their role is to defend people in a punitive system that has a history of treating people differently depending on how much money they have, where they’re from, or what they look like. Public defenders see the system firsthand from the perspective of those who continue to be most unfairly impacted by it.

    Electing a public defender as the city’s chief prosecutor would not just be different; it would also be transformative for San Francisco. And it’s exactly what many Bay Area and national advocates for criminal justice reform are hoping for.

    Across the country there’s a growing movement of activists, organizations, formerly incarcerated people, elected officials, and celebrities calling for the end of mass incarceration in the United States. And it’s not hard to understand why. The U.S. is the world’s leader in incarceration. According to the Sentencing Project, the country’s prison population has grown 500% over the past 40 years to a total of 2.2 million people today—an unprecedented number in world history.

    The precipitous rise of mass incarceration is the direct result of the failure of the “War on Drugs” and other “tough on crime” policies, like mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which have put more and more people behind bars for longer periods of time. The system is far from fair. Most people impacted by these policies are non-white. In fact, people of color make up 67% of the country’s prison population and only 37% of the national population. African Americans are more likely to be arrested and convicted, and they face stiff sentences more often than white Americans. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men.

    San Francisco’s story is no different. The city that takes immense pride in its progressive policies must contend with a stark truth. Over 50% of our jail population is black in a city where today the black population is less than 3% (you are reading those numbers correctly). How do you explain this if not for a system rife with racial inequities?

    While San Francisco’s jail population has been decreasing and crime rates have fallen to historic lows, racial bias remains entrenched in the system. Black San Franciscans are 11 times more likely to be booked into county jail, and black and brown people are more likely to be stopped by the police, searched without their consent, and experience bias when charged or during plea bargaining. After conviction, black defendants receive sentences that are, on average, 28% longer than those received by white defendants.

    Last week, Chesa announced an entire plan to “eradicate” racial bias in the criminal justice system in San Francisco. The plan is bold and calls for the release of demographic data of people stopped, arrested, jailed, convicted, and sentenced to increase the transparency and accountability of every agency involved in the system.

    He wants to implement race-blind charging and plea bargaining, and would decline to prosecute cases where an arresting officer has a history of racist behavior. He’s also been one of the most vocal proponents of ending cash bail in San Francisco and in California, a system where innocent people can be kept in jail because they’re poor, while wealthy people who are guilty and dangerous go free.

    Chesa has a plan to address violent crime, reduce car break-ins, end wrongful convictions, and expand language access and mental health treatment. But he also has a vision of a just system that involves making the district attorney’s office a more active part of the solution. It’s a big reason why he’s backed by prominent criminal justice reform leaders like civil rights icon Angela Davis, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, and Tiffany Caban, an LGBTQ public defender who ran for district attorney in Queens, New York. They’re weighing in because it matters. Make no mistake, this is a local election with national implications.
    The criminal justice system in this country is more than just racist and oppressive. It’s broken. For us to truly make progress on this issue, we have to stop fixing the cracks. We have to move beyond rhetoric about reform and elect candidates who are committed to transformative, “decarceral” change.

    We can have a safe, healthy, and diverse city. We can address car break-ins and other property crimes. We can ensure victims have a voice in the process. And we can end mass incarceration in San Francisco. Don’t believe me? Just ask Chesa Boudin. He’s got my vote.

    Peter Gallotta is a 30-something LGBT political activist holding on to the city that he loves thanks to rent control and two-for-one happy hour specials. He is a former President of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club and currently serves as an appointed member of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee and an elected delegate to the California Democratic Party.