A Tech Investor Is Raising Funds to Investigate San Francisco Prosecutor’s Decarceral Approach

District Attorney Chesa Boudin is facing increasing scrutiny from Silicon Valley investors.

FILE - In this Nov. 23, 2020, file photo, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin walks to the podium to answer questions at a news conference in San Francisco. Boudin took office as district attorney in San Francisco a year ago as part of a politically progressive wave of prosecutors committed to seeking restorative justice over mass incarceration. But now the former deputy public defender is under fire for the deaths of two pedestrians on New Year's Eve who were run down in an intersection by a 45-year-old parolee. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin walks to the podium to answer questions at a news conference in San Francisco on Nov. 23, 2020. Photo: Jeff Chiu/AP

A Silicon Valley angel investor is running a fundraiser to hire a journalist to investigate District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s office and hold him “accountable to the people of San Francisco” in the aftermath of a fatal hit-and-run by a man whom Boudin’s office declined to prosecute following several arrests last year. Boudin, who entered office one year ago on a decarceral platform, has come under attack from law enforcement and, more recently, faced heavy scrutiny from tech investors who say he isn’t doing enough to curb crime.

Jason McCabe Calacanis, a tech investor and former journalist in the Bay Area, put up a GoFundMe page on January 2 titled, “Hold the DA of SF accountable to the people of SF.” The fundraiser seeks to raise $75,000 “to hire an investigative journalist to cover Chesa’s office and this approach” and has raised $48,000 from 368 donors as of Tuesday morning.

Boudin, a former public defender, ran in 2019 on a platform of ending mass incarceration and holding police officers accountable in cases of brutality. He’s one of a growing number of progressive prosecutors who ran a new style of prosecutorial campaign in the footsteps of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who entered office in 2017. Other radical reformers have also faced blame from law enforcement and members of the public for long-standing issues in the criminal legal system. That includes Krasner, who has been targeted by the cop union as well as Pennsylvania’s Democratic attorney general and the state legislature, and newly elected Los Angeles DA George Gascón, who is facing similar recall efforts. (Gascón preceded Boudin as San Francisco’s district attorney.) Law enforcement groups have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars against the campaigns of reform-minded prosecutors like Boudin, Krasner, and Gascón.

In late November, Boudin became the first DA in recent San Francisco history to charge a police officer with homicide. Social media pages calling for his recall started popping up in early December. Those calls intensified this month, following a New Year’s Eve incident in which a man who had been recently arrested several times hit and killed two pedestrians while driving a stolen car intoxicated. Boudin’s office had declined to charge him and referred the man’s case to state parole officials, leading critics to blame Boudin for the deaths. Boudin later said it was “a mistake to think parole supervision would be adequate.”

A website called “RecallChesa.org” appeared late last year, although the domain name was purchased last January. The site is run by an anonymous person and invites people to “join the campaign” to recall Boudin, claiming that Boudin has not pursued justice for “heinous crime” and blaming the district attorney for an increase in crime. It also directs people to a petition on Change.org calling on Boudin to resign. Richie Greenberg, a political blogger who ran as a Republican candidate for San Francisco mayor during a special election in 2018 and got less than 3 percent of the vote, started the petition on January 2, and it was closed after reaching 15,000 signatures. Greenberg is now calling on volunteers to join his efforts to organize support for a recall if Boudin does not resign.

Boudin’s critics say he’s let crime in San Francisco go unchecked, claiming that his policies have emboldened people to commit crimes by removing the threat of incarceration. However, crime in San Francisco dropped overall by almost a quarter in Boudin’s first year in office, as compared to the year before, according to data from the San Francisco Police Department, though the city did see an increase in reported burglaries, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Boudin’s office charged a slightly lower percentage of cases involving burglary and drug offenses than Gascón did in 2019, the San Francisco news site Mission Local reported. Boudin prosecuted 73 percent of burglaries and 78 percent of drug cases presented by police last year, to Gascón’s 75 percent and 83 percent, respectively. Boudin charged slightly more homicides in 2020 than Gascón did in 2019: 75 percent of those presented to Gascón’s 65 percent.

The criticisms facing Boudin are the same criticisms the city’s DAs have faced for decades, Mission Local wrote in a recent analysis. At the center of the New Year’s Eve case are some of the same issues that have long plagued the criminal justice system: a lack of communication between law enforcement and prosecutors, and a focus on punitive rather than rehabilitative treatment.

Law enforcement groups and individuals in Big Tech have been some of Boudin’s leading critics. The union representing San Francisco police, one of Boudin’s biggest opponents, ran $700,000 worth of attack ads against him in the days leading up to the 2019 election. Earlier this month, local tech entrepreneurs held a private chat on the Clubhouse app on “The Future of S.F.,” joined by one of Boudin’s 2019 opponents, Nancy Tung, and investor Cyan Banister, another angel investor whose Twitter name is “Recall Chesa Boudin” and who has been one of Boudin’s most vocal critics on the site. Boudin later joined the call and answered questions and criticisms from other participants, discussing his decision to enter a plea deal with the man who struck the two pedestrians and how the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has contributed to a backlog in jury trials.

Calacanis told The Intercept that he started the GoFundMe page, which says the funded journalists would likely produce a “weekly newsletter and podcast,” after the hit-and-run on New Year’s Eve. He said that the effort “is not a private investigation but rather investigative journalism.” He personally donated $500 to the effort and said that he would not contribute more than 1 percent of the total funds raised.

“For background, I have started several publications, hired hundreds of journalists in the past, and was a journalist and editor for many years,” Calacanis wrote in an email. “This beat reporter would be independent and cover the space with complete autonomy after we hire them. If we can’t find a journalist who wants to take this on, we will partner with a local publication or give ProPublica funding (we haven’t approached them yet).”

One person who donated publicly to the fundraiser, Matt Billinsky, cited the hit-and-run on New Year’s Eve as the reason he wants Boudin recalled. “I think he is someone with a twisted and corrosive view of law enforcement and civic management. And he essentially prioritized the rights of criminals over law-abiding citizens,” Bilinsky told The Intercept. “I think Chesa Boudin’s existence has a body count.”

Another person who donated publicly, Deepak Ganju, said he “trusted Jason C” and agreed with his thoughts about Boudin. “I don’t like how he is running the office and the numerous catch and release incidents, including the one leading to the killing of the Japanese lady,” Ganju said. “Wrong is wrong, and it needs to be exposed and stopped.”

“It’s very rare that you hear from people in Black and brown communities that have been impacted by mass incarceration. Why is it that tech investors are driving this conversation about public safety? 

Boudin credits his decarceral style of prosecuting to growing up visiting his parents in prison. Both of Boudin’s parents were part of the Weather Underground, an anti-war group that embraced violent opposition to the state in the 1960s and ’70s, and were arrested for a robbery in New York that led to the killing of two police officers. Boudin’s father is still incarcerated on a life sentence, and his mother is on parole.

Considering last year’s massive movement calling for racial justice, the people driving these conversations, including local tech investors, should include over-policed communities, said Emily Lee, director of San Francisco Rising, a coalition of grassroots advocacy organizing among the city’s working-class areas and communities of color. The group’s political arm endorsed Boudin and worked on an independent expenditure effort for his campaign.

According to an analysis of 2018 arrest data by ABC7 published last summer, Black people in cities in the Bay Area were more than four times as likely to be arrested than white people — and in some cities, as much as 16 times more likely.

The extreme economic inequality experienced by the Bay Area’s most over-policed communities has also been exacerbated in part by the tech boom, Lee added. “I think that’s been what’s been so interesting around these conversations: It’s very rare that the community are centered. It’s very rare that you hear from people in Black and brown communities that have been impacted by mass incarceration,” Lee said. “Why is it that tech investors are driving this conversation about public safety? People who have extreme privilege. It’s baffling to me that that’s OK.”

Brandon Harami, chair of the SF Berniecrats, which endorsed Boudin in 2019, said the recall efforts were unsurprising attempts to discredit Boudin’s approach to criminal justice. Harami said the group would continue to support Boudin’s work.

“Dismantling systems of injustice was never going to be easy, and it is no surprise that wealthy tech investors and the local Republican Party have been working together to try and recall someone who is operating with empathy and equity,” Harami said. “It’s also unsurprising to me that Chesa has been in office for about a year, and people are already blaming him for problems that have existed for decades.”

Join The Conversation