In June, San Francisco recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin. A progressive prosecutor, Boudin promised reform but shouldered the blame for rising crime rates and a perceived lack of attentiveness to the job.
Last month, Mayor London Breed appointed Brooke Jenkins as Boudin's replacement. Jenkins served as an assistant D.A. for seven years before resigning in 2021 over "mounting dissatisfaction with the direction of the office." She later publicly advocated Boudin's recall.
Today, Jenkins announced new policies: In a break with her predecessor, the San Francisco District Attorney's office will attempt to address drug-related violence and overdose deaths by leaning more heavily into prohibition.
Jenkins criticized her predecessor's policies and tactics, specifically that since 2020, there were almost no prosecutions of drug dealers despite 1,500 overdose deaths in San Francisco; she specifically singled out fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that is increasingly driving overdose deaths nationally. "For the past year or more, the previous administration did not obtain a single fentanyl sales conviction," Jenkins said, "despite what was happening on our streets." She vowed that "We cannot stand by… We have to make changes now to save lives."
While Jenkins has described herself as a supporter of pretrial diversion programs favored by progressive prosecutors, she also criticized the Community Justice Center (CJC), a program within the San Francisco Superior Court that utilizes social services like drug and mental health treatment to keep some offenders out of jail. "My new policy will prohibit drug dealers arrested with more than 5 grams of fentanyl or a controlled substance from being referred to our Community Justice Court," Jenkins said, "which has been abused for the last two and a half years."
Jenkins further stated that she would begin seeking felony charges against drug dealers with large amounts of fentanyl, "because it is now time to hold those who are dealing that lethal drug accountable." She said there were defendants in the CJC currently with "multiple open cases" involving possession of "combined amount[s]" of hundreds of grams of fentanyl, "amount[s] that could kill an entire neighborhood." True, fentanyl is dangerously potent, but it's not a nuclear bomb.
Not content simply to apply a heavier hand going forward, Jenkins announced that her punitive eye would look backward, as well: "As of today, we have revoked a number of lenient offers in drug dealing cases from the previous administration, offers that were given in cases involving egregious amounts of fentanyl that was possessed for sale." In doing so, she "will be seeking felony charges," some of which will include jail time.
Ironically, Jenkins' new policies may have the exact opposite effect as intended.
When governments make penalties more severe, drug dealers simply pass those costs on to the customer. In countries where the penalty for drug dealers is death, drug dealing does not stop, it just gets more dangerous. And the reason that fentanyl has been on the rise in recent years is that those who traffic in prohibited substances prefer more potent products, where smaller amounts can be sold for more money. When the federal government cracked down on prescription painkillers in an attempt to curb the opioid epidemic, it pushed many users toward heroin, often cut with fentanyl to produce more doses. Rather than leading to fewer overdose deaths, prohibition policies exacerbated the trend.
"I promised San Francisco that we would restore public safety," Jenkins said, "and that is what this new policy is intended to do." Unfortunately, Jenkins' intentions do not comport with the lessons learned from decades of prohibition.