Let’s Revisit How Dangerous This Reported Piece on Former DA Chesa Boudin Was to San Francisco

The San Francisco Standard’s 2022 display of one-sided journalism remains potent fuel for xenophobia and creates a lack of trust in hyperlocal news.

*The following article was first published on Medium on May 18, 2022. Edits have been made to update its new publication date.

We’re now almost a year from an election in San Francisco that featured a ballot measure — Proposition H, a.k.a. “Prop H” — that was backed by a majority vote and removed SF District Attorney Chesa Boudin from office. More than $2.7 million dollars were pumped into the election to recall California’s most progressive district attorney. As the San Francisco Chronicle commented in April of last year, the city’s “ultra-wealthy” have poured in funds toward the effort. Forbes detailed earlier this year how many of Silicon Valley’s large corporations have also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the recall effort.

Amid concerns around Prop H, local and national notables like celebrated civil rights activist Angela Davis and serial philanthropist Juanita MORE! came out in support of Boudin — simultaneously denouncing Prop H and describing how it’s a threat to City governance. The San Francisco Labor Council declared its official support of Boudin last month; the San Francisco Chronicle published an endorsement in favor of keeping the current SF DA in office.

All this is to say that a dangerously off-kilter feature piece in The San Francisco Standard — previously known as Here/Say Media and remains a for-profit company backed by Sequoia Capital; its initial funding was provided by Michael Moritz, who’s a partner with the venture capital firm, per the outlet’s website — published today, May 18, 2022, still lands with a concerning thud that has the potential to cause harmful echoes across San Francisco for years to come.

Over the course of 1,616 words, The San Francisco Standard opines about case information the outlet obtained through the San Francisco Superior Court in a reported piece titled “DA Boudin and Fentanyl: Court Data Shows Just 3 Drug Dealing Convictions in 2021 as Immigration Concerns Shaped Policy.” Allegedly, their information revealed three convictions for “possession with intent to sell” were cited for drugs in 2021 by the SF DA’s Office — “two for methamphetamine and one for a case including heroin and cocaine.”

“By comparison, Boudin’s predecessor, George Gascón, oversaw over 90 drug-dealing convictions by the DA’s Office in 2018,” the piece continued.

Anna Tong and Josh Koehn, the two staffed writers who contributed to the article with one Patrick Freeman offering reported data and analysis to it, noted that the SF DA’s Office is still in the process of bringing forth additional convictions in “fentanyl drug sales cases,” but that these actual judgments are “not for the crime of drug dealing.”

The seven-minute-long read goes on to cite valid concerns from local merchants and residents of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in San Francisco, the Tenderloin and South of Market (SoMa), by the drug overdose emergency.

At least 100 deaths related to drug overdoses have already been confirmed this year in San Francisco — with at least 40% of those linked to fentanyl consumption. The public health crisis has exacerbated safety concerns in downtown San Francisco, absolutely. It’s a reality that’s been rightfully harped on since 2019; this recent article from The SF Standard continues to strum those same chords.

But the problematic nature of the piece exists in many facets: how it misrepresented facts, how its one-sided angle lends itself to influencing registered voter opinion, and that it adds fuel for xenophobic rhetoric, as well as builds a language around addiction shamming as it pertains to criminality.

The authors of the piece appear to have used the fact that “just three” drug-related convictions as means to delegitimize the DA’s office’s work in helping mitigate SF’s drug crisis.

(Quasi-lengthy sequitur: While reading the piece, take notice of the use of persuasive language. The usage of adjectives and adverbs like “just” that follow claims of self-expressed dissatisfactory results; the usefulness of the words “single” and “deadly” in the very first paragraph in highlighting an opinionated failure of the SF DA’s Office to secure a conviction related to the opioid crisis in 2021; the line “the DA’s approach is not winning many fans in the most-affected neighborhoods” belies residents of these neighborhoods into a certain fandom around criminal justice reform, rather than representing them as members of a voting population. Where Boudin produced favorable outcomes are followed by conjunctive statements that dim those results. Articles of this nature — dense with information and inherently divisive by their subject matters — should always be assembled in an expository manner, a type of writing technique used to explain a concept and share leveled information to a broader audience.)

Boudin has gone on the record to say most of the changes to charging and conviction rates during his tenure, which included those around drug-related crimes, were greatly affected by the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The SF DA stated on more than one occasion that Covid-prompted court closures and slowdowns, in addition to new state laws, made diversion more accessible in many cases.

The SF Standard made no mention of this fact in its piece, choosing to describe that “drug-dealing convictions [are] multi-faceted.”

In fact, as SFist reported via public data procured in March of this year, the SF DA’s Office filed charges in 57% of arrests presented by police in 2021 — which, per the office, was “the highest filing rate in the ten years the DA’s Office has been tracking this [type of] data.”

The SF Standard made no mention of this in its piece; it used pull quotes from the SF DA’s Office stating “322 felony narcotics cases, which included a total of 1401 narcotics charges, have resulted in a criminal conviction” since Boudin took office.

Boudin, as well, has cited that his tenure as SF DA was to keep campaign promises made to voters. One such pledge was to increase access to both drug treatment programs and mental health resources — two facets of public health aid that are tied to one another, according to multiple peer-reviewed studies in respected academic journals like Harvard Review of Psychiatry — in lieu of blanket criminal convictions.

The SF Standard omitted mention of this connection in public health services in its piece; it emboldened the fact that the DA’s office’s emphasis on diversion programs was “partly out of a commitment to reducing incarceration for lower-level crimes and partly due to efforts to keep the jail population down during [Covid-19].”

Boudin told the Chronicle in March of this year that he is “increasing resources and staffing and traditional prosecutorial focus on the most serious crimes, consistent with that promise to voters.” Growing criminal convictions count in greater numbers than previous SF DA was not a promise to voters.

Buried in the piece is also a dangerous narrative around illicit drug dependence. It’s inferred that the lack of criminal prosecution is correlated to rising rates of drug addiction in the city and that less drug availability will mitigate this public health emergency.

By The SF Standard contrasting record-high substance overdose deaths with single-digit drug-dealing convictions by the SF DA’s Office, it’s suggested that more prosecutions will lead to fewer overdose deaths. There is no empirical evidence proving this correlation is true. The language published by the journalism outlet here, too, makes it rife for addiction shaming around criminality.

On the contrary, it was found in 2021 that drug overdose deaths among inmates in federal prisons jumped 600% between 2001 and 2018. In county jails, overdose deaths increased by more than 200% during that same time.

Perhaps the most dangerous rhetoric put out in this recent piece from The SF Standard can be found in its use of the following phrase: “deportation-safe convictions are not just going to first-time offenders.”

Prior to tying that string of words into a terrifying knot, the authors of the piece describe how the SF DA’s attention to offenders’ immigration status, “which by law they are required to consider,” has played a major role in his conviction record. The outlet was quick to mention that both prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys understand that drug dealing convictions are reasons for deportation — “and a substantial number of drug dealers in the city are Honduran nationals who could face deadly consequences if deported.”

However, prosecutors and defense attorneys are statutorily obligated to avoid deportation consequences in criminal plea bargains, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. A guilty plea to “accessory after the fact,” which is described as a conviction of helping another individual commit a crime, consisted of 80% of the convicted cases of drug dealings brought to the SF DA’s Office. This type of sentencing still allows the convicted individual to apply for citizenship if he or she or they wish to at some point in time.

Francisco Ugarte, an immigration attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, wrote today in a fifteen-tweet thread on Twitter criticizing the article published by The SF Standard, adding that this binding trust to help defendants avoid deportation is “why the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that attorneys MUST advise if a plea triggers deportation.”

“[When] the DA and defendant agree on an alternative plea that avoids deportation, it doesn’t mean the person doesn’t suffer consequences. Any conviction is a punishment, and there are plenty of serious crimes that don’t trigger deportation,” Ugarte continued on Twitter. “This negotiation happens in every courtroom in California-it [and is] not confined to San Francisco. And it is a violation of an attorney’s ethical duty to their client if they don’t try to negotiate an immigration safer plea.”

By throwing the phrase “deportation-safe convictions” into the zeitgeist, The SF Standard has created grounds for a xenophobic spin on SF’s drug overdose crisis to orbit around. It elicits notions that immigrants are behind the fentanyl epidemic; that immigrants can be scapegoated for the overdose deaths the city continues to experience; how immigrants are using their lack of citizenship as a guise to engage in criminal activity to avoid harsher punishment and deportation.

It’s political fodder that can be spun up like carnival cotton candy during a time in this country when violent hate crimes are at a twelve-year high.

When stories like these inevitably make their way into the cultural milieu, I return to Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” When stories — articles, thought pieces, essays — are leveraged to fit into a singular reality, we endanger the entirety of the human experience.

We lose discussion around the dualities on important issues. Complex notions are forced through narrow conduits for disjointed contemplation for a gain of some sort. When single-sided stories that affect our immediate lives are published by influential news outlets, trust in hyperlocal journalism is eroded when those pieces are plucked apart — pulled into segments to dissect the slime between certain sentences.

Our individual and collective accountability exists in how we choose to contain that grime in a society so very thick in the filth of it all.

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