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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
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San Francisco attorneys blast criminal justice ‘disaster’ under new DA

Interim District Attorney Brooke Jenkins' push to prosecute drug use and homelessness is meeting political pushback from San Francisco's progressive attorney system.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (CN) — Just two weeks after replacing San Francisco’s progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin, DA Brooke Jenkins is taking heat for a mass firing which many attorneys say is throwing the office into chaos. 

Civil rights attorney Arcelia Hurtado, among about 15 people fired from the interim DA’s office this past Friday, called Jenkins’ management a “disaster.” She said in a phone interview she was abruptly removed from managing the post-conviction unit — in the middle of the Napoleon Brown murder case involving Mayor London Breed’s brother — without explanation or transition plans. 

She called this “the biggest red flag” because Jenkins was appointed by the mayor and seems to be following instructions. 

“I’ve been locked out of my computer, locked out of everything,” Hurtado said. “This is clearly a political move and she clearly lined up all of the senior management people Boudin hired and fired us all without cause.”

This week, Jenkins asked the state Attorney General’s office to take over Hurtado’s case to avoid any conflict of interest with the mayor. It’s just one piece of what city attorneys and the Public Defender's Office say is the fallout of returning to failed war-on-drugs policies after a heavily funded recall — which blamed homelessness and the opioid crisis on the DA — that could harm many people. It is also being called a political backslide for San Francisco, recently poised as a progressive city for criminal justice reform while Breed positions herself as a centrist ally of frustrated voters.

Jenkins’ team fired critical Boudin staffers like data research director Mikaela Rabinowitz; the Independent Investigations Bureau attorney prosecuting cops, Lateef Gray; and assistant district attorney Dana Drusinsky, who helped resentence rehabilitated people. The DA installed new transition managers, including people Boudin fired like former assistant DA Ana Gonzalez, according to San Francisco Chronicle. 

A screenshot of San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Mayor London Breed and Police Chief William "Bill" Scott discussing the use of civil injunctions to keep repeat drug dealers out of the city's Tenderloin district.

Breed appears to have considerable influence over Jenkins’ office. Documents obtained by Mission Local show that the mayor’s office is intercepting press inquiries for Jenkins and providing media announcements for the DA to release, based on communications between DA spokesperson Robyn Burke and Breed’s deputy chief of staff Andrea Bruss. 

When contacted for comment, Breed's office said the mayor has only been involved in the public events she attended with the DA, including the announcement of her appointment and her swearing in. The office said staff did not field press requests or send out announcements for Jenkins, and that they forwarded requests to members of the DA's team.

"There has been no involvement on policy-making or decisions around cases," Breed's office said in an emailed statement.

Jenkins’ office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview to discuss changes in policy.

San Francisco Police Officers Association president Tracy McCray supports Jenkins’ actions. "After more than two years of having a criminal defense attorney occupy the district attorney’s office, we are hopeful that having an actual prosecutor in charge will result in criminals being held accountable and crime victims once again having a voice in our criminal justice system," McCray said in a statement.

Tal Klement, who oversaw the felony and misdemeanor units, said by phone he was surprised to be fired after Jenkins promised there would not be mass firings of Boudin hires. He said he is concerned about Jenkins’ replacements, including law enforcement officials and traditional prosecutors who may prefer stricter penalties for people accused of crimes.

“I worry about a return to the policies of mass incarceration and tough on crime type approaches to addressing social problems,” he said. “I’m particularly concerned about the reinstituion of gang enhancements that have historically targeted young Black and brown people and led to racial profiling and lack of trust between the police and those communities.”

Members of San Francisco's Public Defender's Office participate in a rally, including defender Elizabeth Camacho, center. (San Francisco Public Defender's Office / Courthouse News)

Public defenders Peter Calloway and Elizabeth Camacho said policies like this week's standalone charges for possession of drug paraphernalia, the most filed in San Francisco in 11 years — which Jenkins said she was not responsible for — exacerbate a drug crisis. They said Jenkins’ approach will further push poor people into poverty and increase chances for shortened life spans, returns to using substances or overdose.

Calloway said Jenkins’ push for cash bail will lead to more people in jail and more separations and deportations — disproportionately affecting people of color. He pointed to a new study showing rates of misdemeanor prosecution increase when police budgets increase — the San Francisco Board of Supervisors just approved an increased police department budget — and another study from last year showing higher misdemeanor prosecution rates increase crime.

“This was not about reducing addiction, reducing drug sales,” Calloway said. “It was about intentionally targeting low income communities of color … for incarceration. It's not about helping drug users.”

Camacho said the city under Jenkins is "going back to the Nixon era" when the war on drugs targets communities of color.

"She wants to have quick soundbites, and sweep away and hide a health problem by criminalizing drug users," Camacho said.

Calloway said big money from conservative real estate interests and billionaire Republican political donor William Oberndorf helped recall Boudin and let Breed install her DA. He said Boudin challenged those investors’ interests using a worker protection unit and going after companies like DoorDash for employee mistreatment.

“They were able to relentlessly propagandize and exploit some of the city’s very real issues like homelessness, like overdoses, and persuade people that Chesa Boudin’s policies were to blame,” he said. “With enough money and relentless messaging, even of things that can easily be shown to be false, you can get people to believe anything.”

Attorney John Hamasaki, formerly of the city’s Police Commission, said the city’s lawyers and judges are “tight-knit” and Jenkins’ attempts to roll back progressive policies may not be successful. He added he thinks the mayor’s approach will run into a wall with the Public Defender’s Office.

“Assuming that attorneys and judges are going to get in line for somebody that isn't particularly widely respected or loved is just a fantasy,” he said.

Although Jenkins has to be elected to remain in office after November, her actions have lasting impacts. Camacho said by increasing the city’s “massive case backlog” Jenkins is going to smother the system’s ability to address the most serious cases.

“I hope that when she talks about accountability, she’s held accountable and knows that this is costing our entire community a lot, both in financial resources and in suffering and separation of families,” Camacho said.

Klement, one of the attorneys Jenkins fired, said Jenkins’ policies could run up against reforms enshrined in state law.

“The trends statewide have been in favor of criminal justice reform, against the use of gang enhancements and other draconian sentencing enhancements,” he said. 

Camacho said the Public Defender’s Office will fight Jenkins by demanding new cases go to trial.

“The best way that we can show Jenkins that we do not agree with her carceral approach is by returning verdicts of not guilty," she said, "because the jury, the community, is the one that will speak.”

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