After decades visiting his parents in prison, this lawyer wants to be San Francisco's next DA
SAN FRANCISCO - Chesa Boudin spared no time after deplaning the redeye from California. He inhaled the crisp fall air whipping his cheek through an open window and speeds away from the shore. Razor-wire fencing and a bright yellow sign come into view after a short drive from the Buffalo airport, welcoming visitors to the maximum-security Wende Correctional Facility in western New York.
Boudin was there to visit an inmate: his father, David Gilbert.
When Boudin was in diapers, his parents dropped him off with a babysitter and never returned. Once operatives of the Weather Underground, a radical left-wing group most prominent in the 1970s, the duo acted as getaway drivers in an armed heist that left three men dead. Boudin's mother served 22 years. His father will likely never be freed.
Decades visiting his parents behind prison walls piqued a passion for criminal justice. Still, for a man who has spent adulthood laboring in courtrooms opposing prosecutors, the 39-year-old public defender knew the news he had come to deliver that October morning in 2018 was likely to unnerve his imprisoned father.
"I've been thinking about a career change," Boudin says he told his father, as they hugged and he gave him a cup of weak coffee and yogurt he had purchased from the penitentiary's vending machines.
"What did you have in mind?" the 75-year-old asked, taking the seat catty-cornered to his son's at the square table toward the back of the room.
George Gascón, San Francisco's district attorney, had announced earlier that month that he would not seek reelection, paving the way for the city's first race in more than a century with no incumbent. Boudin was seriously considering a bid for the open seat, joining the emerging wave of prosecutors promising sweeping reforms to upend a harsh, old-guard culture of law and order.
"Wow," sighed Gilbert. But the more Boudin talked, the more his father understood.
"For most of my life, it was impossible to imagine that the district attorney's office could be focused on undoing some of the damage done by overpolicing and mass incarceration," Boudin explained later. "I think it's up to people who care about the system and have been impacted by it to make sure this movement continues to build."
Less than three months later, on Jan. 15, Boudin filed election paperwork to become the city's top prosecutor.
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For decades, the race to become a district attorney was a referendum on which candidate could be the most tough on crime. Local prosecutors handle more than 90% of the criminal cases in the United States and have largely unbridled discretion deciding whether to pursue charges, how to set bail and propose the level of punishment.
Over the past several years, though, voters in conventionally red and blue states have selected progressive challengers over longtime incumbents, punctuating a growing consensus across the country that traditional approaches to criminal justice aren't working.
As public confidence in the power of prosecutors to reshape the system evolves, reform-minded candidates, many with backgrounds in criminal defense, cropped up. Kim Foxx in Chicago and Rachael Rollins in Boston won their elections on promises of decarceration and police accountability. Larry Krasner, a one-time public defender and civil rights attorney, became Philadelphia's district attorney in 2016, having never prosecuted a case.
Boudin, a candidate endorsed by all three, could be next.