In the state that once pioneered the punitive Three Strikes policy, a coalition of recently elected district attorneys is pushing back against mass incarceration.
“Politics is often defined or understood as the art of making a deal. But I think, at its best, it’s the art of making possible tomorrow that which we can’t even imagine today,” says Chesa Boudin, the district attorney of San Francisco County. The son of two members of the Weather Underground sentenced to long spells in prison, Boudin was narrowly elected in 2019 under San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system. He talks of the pain of growing up with imprisoned parents; of the collect calls he still receives every Saturday from his incarcerated father; and of his belief, inculcated in him from childhood, that simply locking people up is a failure of the political imagination. “My personal experience shapes me—my worldview, my fears and hopes, my dreams and aspirations,” he acknowledges.
Boudin and three other district attorneys—Republican Tori Verber Salazar of San Joaquin County, in the Central Valley (whose office didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article), and Democrats George Gascón of Los Angeles and Diana Becton of Contra Costa County—joined the Prosecutors Alliance of California in September 2020. Although their offices serve only four of the 58 counties in California, they represent more than 30 percent of the state’s population. The organization was established as a progressive alternative to the more conservative California District Attorneys Association (CDAA), which, for decades, has helped shape criminal justice priorities in the Golden State. In 2022, when 56 of those counties hold elections for their DAs, the number of Californians served by self-identifying progressive prosecutors could well reach the 50 percent mark.