Why Is the District Attorney’s Race So Important?

Voters have a rare chance in November to think critically about a key part of our criminal justice system.

The biggest race in San Francisco in November’s election is undoubtedly that of the District Attorney. 

George Gascón said late last year that he would not be running for re-election, opening up an incumbent-free race. For the first time in eight years, voters will have a chance to rethink a key part of the city’s criminal justice system. With a talented field of four candidates, the stakes are high. 

And yet, not everyone in San Francisco is aware of what a district attorney does. There’s a general understanding that the DA’s office is the prosecutorial arm of the court system, bringing charges against those who break the law. But the job requires more than just being an agent of the law; when maximized to its creative potential, the District Attorney can introduce propositions, institute criminal justice reform measures, and change the structure of how we respond to marginalized populations who end up in jail.

San Francisco is one of the few counties in the nation that elects its district attorney; more commonly, they are appointed. There are obvious advantages to this: Voters get to decide which candidate best meets their values, and, once elected, those candidates feel the pressure to deliver on their campaign promises and keep their constituents happy if they want to run for reelection. 

Gascón took the freedom allotted to him as a prosecutor in a liberal city and ran with it. While he was heavily criticized for not bringing charges against any police officers who shot and killed someone in the last eight years, he has used his position to create some long-lasting changes to San Francisco’s criminal justice system. 

He paved the way for the 2014 passage of Proposition 47, which reclassified numerous non-violent crimes as misdemeanors, not felonies. As a result, prison populations statewide dropped. He opposed the construction of a new jail, instead voicing support for investment into rehabilitation services and behavioral health centers. And he’s long supported the legalization of drugs. When Proposition 64 to legalize marijuana passed, Gascón went above and beyond to clear old convictions, collaborating with Code for America to automatically reduce and clear more than 9,000 old charges. 

Fall 2019 Election Preview Coverage

The four candidates running for his seat are just as visionary and willing to push the boundaries of the job description. Former Police Commission President Suzy Loftus pledges to bring independent investigators in to determine if charges should be filed against police officers who shoot and kill people. 

“I will run a transparent investigation. I will make sure that what the law is understood, what the facts are is understood, and I will fully personally investigate every single shooting,” she told SF Weekly when she launched her campaign last year. “Nothing does more damage to the relationship of trust between the police and local communities than when these fatal shootings happen. If there is a crime there I will charge the case.”

Candidate Chesa Boudin, who’s worked in San Francisco’s Public Defender’s Office for more than five years, wants to eliminate the cash bail system, which he says “allows dangerous people with money to buy their way out while poor people languish in jail regardless of how weak the evidence is against them.”

Leif Dautch draws on his background as a president of the city’s Juvenile Probation Commission to rethink how we use our criminal justice spaces. When Juvenile Hall is shuttered in 2021, a move which he supports, Dautch wants to convert the facility into a 150-bed mental health treatment center. 

Last but not least, prosecutor Nancy Tung has taken on the battle for racial and cultural equity, demanding more 911 dispatchers, and a stronger response to hate crimes, particularly against the Chinese-American community. “The public deserves to know if specific groups of people are being targeted, but the police department has refused to release the data it collects about the race or ethnicity of the victims,” she wrote on Medium. 

The priorities and visions each of these candidates have for the city of San Francisco could be long-lasting. While a district attorney has a four-year term before they have to run for office again, there is no limit on the number of terms they can have. This, combined with San Francisco’s preference for incumbents, can result in a very long run: District Attorney Arlo Smith occupied the seat from 1980 to 1995, and District Attorney Matthew Brady held office from 1920 to 1943. 

The results of this election could also pave the way for candidates to step outside of our county’s boundaries. Former District Attorney Kamala Harris, who preceded Gascón, became California Attorney General, then a senator, and is now running for president. 

There are a lot of measures on November’s ballot, and a fierce battle for the supervisor seat in District 5. But nothing holds the weight of this District Attorney’s race, the results of which could impact San Francisco for decades to come.

Before you fill out your ballot, do yourself a favor and attend one of the upcoming candidate debates. The next one, hosted by The Bar Association of San Francisco & USF School of Law, takes place Monday, Sept. 9, from 5 to 7:30 p.m., at McLaren Conference Center, 2130 Fulton St.

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