Despite widespread claims that the San Francisco District Attorney refuses to file charges, a recently released data dashboard from the DA’s office shows that, in 2021, Chesa Boudin actually filed charges at a slightly higher rate overall than any San Francisco prosecutor since 2011.
What is different under Boudin is that more people charged are channeled into diversion programs that involve alternatives to incarceration, such as rehabilitation or court supervision.
As a result, convictions have shown a marked decline under Boudin, and “successful diversions” have increased. But this pattern has also drawn intense criticism from law enforcement and residents.
Outrage over an increase in crime
Many reported crimes, in fact, decreased or stayed level with prior years, according to the SFPD’s data for 2020 and 2021. Notable exceptions included reported motor vehicle thefts, burglaries, and homicides — all of which increased in the past two years.
Homicides and car thefts have also increased in other cities, according to preliminary 2021 data from Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego.
In his first year in office, Boudin did indeed charge several crimes at a lower rate than prior DAs, and the reduction, an overall 10 percent, has been portrayed in the media to show he charges less crime than his predecessors.
But last year, the office’s rate of filing charges, including for motor vehicle thefts, robberies, burglaries and assault, bounced back up: In 2021, the DA filed charges on 54 percent of the cases in which SFPD and other law enforcement agencies presented an arrest to his office.
In 2019, when DA George Gascón was in office, the overall filing rate was 49 percent.
In many cases, Boudin’s charge filing rate increased further in 2022.
DA spokesperson Rachel Marshall said that 2020 data isn’t representative of the DA’s priorities. Pandemic-related factors, like court closures, slowed Boudin’s charging rate during 2020, Marshall said, and in 2021, things turned around: The DA’s office was often charging at a higher rate than past DAs.
And it’s not all up to the district attorney: The DA depends on law enforcement agencies to present arrests to his office. Without an arrest, no DA can file criminal charges.
“I think the reason people have this false perception that we’re not prosecuting is actually because police clearance rates have plummeted,” Marshall said. “So when people are seeing someone or hearing about a crime that is not resulting in anything happening, a lot of times — the vast majority of those times — that person is not getting arrested.”
In fact, although Boudin is receiving fewer arrests to work with from the SFPD, his higher overall 2021 charging rate puts him not far behind prior DAs, in terms of raw numbers of felony charges filed.
Likely due to the pandemic, the SFPD’s Incident Report dashboard shows that reports of crime made to the police also dropped in 2020, and in 2021 still remained about 10 percent lower than the 2019 level. Similarly, the rate of arrests made by the SFPD per incident decreased from its already low level in 2020 and 2021, compared to 2019.
Last year, only 4.2 percent of incidents reported to the SFPD resulted in arrests. In 2019, about 5.2 percent of incidents led to an arrest.
There are also cases when the court releases someone accused of a crime, regardless of the DA’s intentions for prosecuting. In a case last month, Boudin charged two men allegedly involved in a robbery with a ghost gun, and requested the accused remain in jail. However, the court released the two men for home detention while they await their court date.
A new approach
Despite filing similar or higher levels of charges, Boudin is taking a different approach to administering criminal justice. He is not a “cuff ‘em and stuff ‘em” kind of DA.
He won office on a platform against overpolicing and mass incarceration, and has followed through: More of those charged are sent into diversion programs instead of jail.
That means conviction rates have been slowly decreasing since 2011, when the DA’s data dashboard begins reporting, and under Boudin’s tenure, this trend has accelerated. At the same time, the rate of “successful diversion” — when the requirements of the diversion program have been met and completed — increased dramatically: In 2021, 40 percent of the DA’s cases ended with successful diversions, equal to the number of convictions. So far this year, diversions are surpassing convictions.
Boudin has taken some heat for his anti-incarceration stance, particularly when individuals released through diversion programs commit a new crime.
But one-year recidivism rates have stayed relatively constant over the past five years, according to Mikaela Rabinowitz, the Director of Data, Research, and Analytics at the DA’s office. “The proportion of people who are presented to us who have prior arrests is pretty much exactly the same now as it always has been,” Rabinowitz told Mission Local.
And Boudin cannot take sole credit for the growing rate of cases sent to diversion programs; Rabinowitz said that, since these programs are often so lengthy, many of the cases resolved in 2020 and even 2021 would have begun their diversion programs prior to Boudin taking office.
A January, 2022, policy brief from the California Policy Lab found that youth given the opportunity to participate in the Make-It-Right diversion program had a 19-percent lower likelihood of being arrested again within six months, a 44-percent reduction relative to youth who were prosecuted in the traditional juvenile justice system.
“We want to address root causes of crime,” said spokesperson Marshall. “And when we think that can be helped through one of these diversion programs, then we absolutely support that.”