San Francisco’s four district attorney candidates staked out their positions Wednesday night at 518 Valencia Street, and made it clear their minds were on reform.

Though their ideas varied, Suzy Loftus, Chesa Boudin, Nancy Tung, and Leif Dautch — all of whom are bidding to succeed eight-year incumbent DA George Gascon — hashed out such topics as bail reform, shutting down juvenile hall, and how and when to prosecute police shootings.

Police Commissioner Petra DeJesus moderated the panel hosted by the San Francisco Latino Democratic Club.

Some of the candidates threw around big policy ideas. Among them: Loftus’s proposed “Civil Rights Unit,” a broadly focused group that would examine how the office impacts racial disparities. Loftus, a former Police Commission present and assistant DA under Kamala Harris, said those disparities are still glaring in local criminal justice system.

“I stood in front of a room of prosecutors and told them, ‘It’s not your job to exacerbate racial disparities — but that’s what you’re doing, so it’s your job to make it right,’” Loftus said.

Another came from Boudin, currently a deputy public defender, who touted his proposed “Wrongful Conviction Unit,” which would establish an civilian advisory board that would examine applications from inmates and the state defense bar and decide whether a second investigation into the crime is warranted.

“The City of San Francisco spends millions of dollars settling cases when people have been wrongly convicted,” he said. “And it’s not just about the money; it’s about the lives you’ve destroyed.”

Dautch, a prosecutor with the California Attorney General’s office, told the Mission crowd about his plan to be tougher on fraudulent landlords, particularly those improperly using owner-move-in evictions — when a landlord says they or a relative will be moving into a property but in actuality rent it to another tenant at a higher price. Dautch charged that the current DA’s office has hardly prosecuted these kinds of cases. “That stops with me,” he said.

Moderator Petra DeJesus (right) and DA candidate Suzy Loftus at last night’s forum. Photo by Julian Mark.

Tung, a prosecutor in the Alameda District Attorney’s office and former San Francisco assistant DA, spoke generally about her intention to work more closely with other Bay Area law enforcement agencies to crack down on organized crime, which she said is the source of property crime such as street drug dealing and car break-ins. “They’re people who are getting rich off the misery of others,” she said.

Though the four candidates were in agreement on many issues, they differentiated themselves on the issues of police shooting prosecutions and eliminating juvenile detention centers. Both Loftus and Boudin said outright that they supported AB 392, a state bill which would require police to only use deadly force when they have no other options.  

Tung did not explicitly say that she support the bill when asked, only offering that it was a “good start” and that she supported more emphasis on de-escalation techniques. Dautch said he was waiting for amendments to the bill before he supported it.

However, Dautch pledged he would conclude police shooting investigations in six months (under Gascon many have taken years), would hold a town hall to explain his charging decisions, and would explore the possibilities of charging cops with lesser crimes such as assault with a deadly weapon or negligent discharge of a firearm.

Each of the candidates supported winding down the city’s juvenile hall facility except for Tung. “The problem that I have with closing down our secured facilities completely, is that there are still going to be minors that are found by a judge that need confinement …” she said. She said she worried about “farming out” convicted minors outside of their communities.

Boudin said he wanted to beat the 2021 date proposed by the Board of Supervisors. Dautch said he not only wants to shut down the facility but transform it into “mental health justice center.” “The era of locking kids up is over,” he said. One of “the issues we do have in the city is the mental health crisis we have on the streets and in our county jail.”

The debate was hairier around abolishing the cash bail system, a move that was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last fall, but which was put on hold for voters to decide in 2020.

All, except for Tung, supported completely eliminating the system — though the candidates said there needed to be more thought around how cash bail would be replaced. Concentrating power in the hands of judges using a risk-assessment tool — whose data can be biased — is still problematic.

Both Boudin and Dautch touted their involvement in bringing the state closer to the system’s abolishment. Boudin touted that he argued in front of the California Supreme Court that cash bail was unconstitutional. Dauch was a member of the state Attorney General team that decided not to defend the system.

“There’s a lot of problems with risk assessment,” Boudin said. “But what we know is, in our society, liberty is the norm.”