San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and a memorial to two women killed. Photo credit: SFGovTV and ABC-7 News.

Accountability Must Accompany Reform

By Joel P. Engardio
Vice President
Stop Crime SF

This is an essay about the importance of accountability, especially when working to reform something with life and death consequences such as our criminal justice system.

It was tragic when two women crossing a street in San Francisco were struck and killed by an allegedly drunk driver who ran a red light on New Year’s Eve.

Yet outrage has only grown with reports that the suspect was on parole for armed robbery and remained free despite being arrested multiple times in recent months. Police said he hit the women with a stolen car and was in possession of a gun with a large-capacity ammunition magazine.

It begs the question why the suspect, Troy McAlister, was never sent back to jail any of the five times he was arrested in San Francisco while on parole. The most recent arrest was just 11 days before the deaths of Hanako Abe, 27, and Elizabeth Platt, 60.

Finger pointing
Community shock and anger only intensified when officials responsible for public safety tried to deflect responsibility by blaming each other for not doing more sooner to avoid this tragedy.

District Attorney Chesa Boudin said he didn’t prosecute McAlister’s parole crimes because he “opted instead to refer each case to state parole agents, who can seek to imprison those who violate the terms of their release,” the Chronicle reported.

But the agency in charge of state parole told the Chronicle: “None of the parolee’s arrests following his 2020 release have yet to result in filings of criminal charges by the District Attorney. Our parole office followed all procedures after these incidents, including conducting investigations and making appropriate referrals for the individual.”

Boudin also laid blame on police, telling ABC-7 News that SFPD didn’t notify parole about McAlister’s latest arrest.

Police Chief Bill Scott issued a statement that was largely interpreted as rebuking the district attorney: “This senseless tragedy shouldn’t have happened. I commend the work San Francisco police officers have done to arrest and hold this individual accountable for his criminal conduct…I’m also proud to lead a department that has been unflinching in embracing accountability. At the San Francisco Police Department, we take responsibility whenever we fall short of expectations. That’s an approach every element of our criminal justice system needs to embrace.”

Boudin’s track record
Boudin worked many years as a public defender. But as district attorney, Boudin is now San Francisco’s top prosecutor who determines which criminal cases are charged — or not charged.

KPIX-5 News reported that Boudin was listed as McAlister’s public defender in a 2018 robbery case, which raises conflict of interest concerns.

Boudin extensively defended his actions under tough questioning by journalist Dion Lim of ABC-7 News, saying he would hold McAlister accountable for a “deathly, serious crime.” Boudin ended up charging McAlister with manslaughter for the deaths of the two women.

While Boudin won his election promising bold criminal justice reforms, the recent tone of social media comments suggest many residents are worried how many other repeat offenders like McAlister haven’t been prosecuted for new crimes. They don’t want to see more tragedies that could be avoided. There is also growing unease over a sharp increase in crimes like car thefts, home invasions and homicides during Boudin’s first year in office.

Sound principles
Many of the principles that Boudin espoused as a candidate are sound and necessary. We should all commit to ending a long history of systemic racism. People suffering from mental illness and addiction should be given compassionate treatment, not jail time, when treatment can prevent them from reoffending. The ultimate way to stop crime is to create an equitable society where education, healthcare, housing and employment are accessible to all.

Yet accountability must accompany reform. Solving the underlying causes of crime will take a regional, state and national effort. It will also take time to transform communities to the point crime is a less appealing option. Until then, we can’t forget about the victims of crime. Their trauma must be addressed. And we must hold people accountable for the crimes they commit.

When possible, we should focus on rehabilitation programs over locking people up. For those who need to serve time in jail, we must prepare them for a successful reentry to society so they have less reason to reoffend. But we must be willing to prosecute serious crimes and use jails for dangerous and repeat offenders.

Holding everyone accountable
District Attorney Chesa Boudin pledged to “protect public safety in San Francisco.”

My hope is that he sees the failures in the New Year’s Eve case as a wake up call. Rather than push reforms too hard and fast, there should be some balance. We can’t afford to let dangerous, repeat offenders fall through the cracks and result in more tragedy like the deaths of Hanako Abe and Elizabeth Platt.

Trust in our criminal justice system depends on accountability. If police abuse their power and cause great harm, they should be criminally charged. If an elected prosecutor fails to keep residents safe, voters must hold them accountable at the ballot box.

Stop Crime SF was formed in 2017 during an epidemic of car break-ins — more than 30,000 across San Francisco in one year — and we saw lots of finger pointing at community meetings. Police blamed the district attorney for not prosecuting. The DA blamed cops for not making arrests. They both blamed politicians for ineffective laws.

If you believe our district attorney should be held accountable for keeping residents safe, sign up here to learn more about Stop Crime SF.

Stop Crime SF aims to hold the entire criminal justice system and all public officials accountable for doing their jobs at the highest standard.

We are a volunteer organization of residents working together to reduce and prevent crime in our neighborhoods. We give victims a voice at City Hall and we monitor court proceedings to ensure prosecutors and judges prioritize public safety.

Originally published at https://www.engardio.com on January 5, 2021.

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