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The Standard Q&A: Public defender Francisco Ugarte talks DA Chesa Boudin, drug cases and immigration

Chesa Boudin and Francisco Ugarte
A composite photos of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in 2022, left, and Defense attorney Francisco Ugarte in, 2017, right. | Camille Cohen ; Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Earlier this week, The Standard published a report on the way District Attorney Chesa Boudin has altered the way drug dealing cases are being prosecuted in San Francisco. It was a complex story with many nuances that merit further discussion, so we spoke with Francisco Ugarte, who manages the immigration unit for the Public Defender’s Office, to further explore the issues at play.

You expressed some big objections to our story on Twitter. What were your main issues with the piece?
I felt the article did not cover the issues fairly or accurately. More than 700 people died from accidental drug overdoses in San Francisco last year, and more than 80,000 in the nation. Each loss of life is a devastating tragedy, and many families in our city are in deep pain. The article amounted to an attack against a growing and popular criminal justice reform movement emphasizing treatment, housing, and other essential support services as better answers to our drug crisis, than simply trying to throw people in jail.

You noted on Twitter that the war on drugs has been a failure. What steps would you take to fix the system?
The decades-long “War on Drugs” has been a catastrophic failure (though it has been remarkably successful in incarcerating Black and brown community members). Despite harnessing billions of dollars into investigating and prosecuting drug crimes, confiscating millions of pounds of drugs, and putting low and high-level dealers in jail, addiction and drug availability is at an all-time high. Demand for drugs remains overwhelming. It’s also no accident that as wealth inequality surges, so does addiction, and few have placed blame for our addiction crisis on the ultra-rich whose expansion of wealth is inversely proportionate to growing poverty and the destruction of our social safety net.

It wasn’t always this way. Prior to around 1920, drugs were mostly legal in the United States. Doctors regularly prescribed heroin to treat opiate addiction. But things slowly changed, as the country adopted a moralistic, criminal justice, and racist approach to controlling drugs—where police began targeting communities of color for drug enforcement. The now hyper-criminalization of drugs has led to an exponential growth in illicit activity (like it did during Prohibition), along with an expansion of drug trafficking organizations, violent turf battles, and systemic corruption within law enforcement.

The only real solution to our drug crisis is to massively invest in treatment, housing, and other services, while divesting from costly policing strategies. In the long term, we need to regularize the transactions of drugs, like we do with alcohol and cannabis. By treating drug addiction as a public health problem, we reduce violence and other criminal behaviors associated with drug trafficking, reduce the number of people we incarcerate, and most importantly, help people get off of their addiction.

How do you think DA Boudin’s approach to these cases is affecting San Francisco?
The District Attorney has many creative, innovative ideas, and his policies have already helped people find housing and jobs and avoid continued contacts with the criminal system. But a single elected District Attorney in a major city cannot stop the global opioid crisis. This is especially true when partners in this effort (including the police, the mayor, business leaders, and billionaires) have tried to block his ideas every step of the way.

Lisbon, Portugal, is a city which has decriminalized drugs, shifted resources toward health and social services, and reduced the stigmas associated with drug use. It now has one of the lowest overdose death rates in Europe. But unlike in San Francisco, social partners there worked together, where the courts, police, defense attorneys, politicians and business leaders got on the same page. That’s not the case here. We can improve things by adopting new strategies, but we will only be successful if we work together.

What do you think of DA Chesa Boudin’s increased use of “accessory after the fact” convictions to resolve drug dealing cases?
San Francisco wins when we can help a struggling person get on their feet and make better decisions. We also win when we can help everyone access high quality treatment, stable housing, stable income, and social services. We lose when we give up, and throw people in a cage—which creates a cycle of trauma, poverty, and more addiction.

The article’s headline was eye-catching but was a gross mischaracterization of the issues. There have certainly been convictions for crimes related to drug sales under DA Boudin. Anyone charged with a felony drug offense regardless of their birthplace, faces extreme consequences—incarceration, family separation, loss of income and loss of future job prospects. But when immigrants are charged, they can also face the catastrophic consequence of deportation—which the U.S. Supreme Court has labeled the “civil death penalty.”

Plea bargaining to avoid deportation is required under California law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that defense attorneys must advise of immigration consequences. California Penal Code section 1016.3 requires that all prosecutors and defense attorneys consider immigration consequences. The crime of accessory, though serious (it carries a maximum of 3 years prison as a felony), does not trigger automatic deportation.

As someone who has spent nearly fifteen years as a lawyer representing immigrant residents of San Francisco, I also want to underscore that immigrants should not be scapegoated for larger societal issues like crime, poverty and drug addiction. The way we portray immigrants in the media has a very real effect on policy. I’ve seen terrifying ICE raids. I’ve represented moms and dads ripped away from their kids, and teenagers who were trafficked here and then deported to their deaths. I’ve seen domestic violence survivors end up in deportation proceedings after they called police for help, and fathers permanently separated from their children after getting caught in the system. Most of the immigrants I’ve represented in my career have lived in the city for more than a decade, and most have close U.S. citizen relatives. 

More punishment, whether it be  prison time, deportation, or both, will do nothing address drug addiction. To the contrary, incarceration and deportation de-stabilizes communities, separates families, and drains resources from more effective solutions like treatment, housing, and jobs.

What upset the immigrant rights community about this story?
Birthplace is not relevant to whether a person has committed an offense. Those selling more expensive drugs to middle class or wealthy individuals in neighborhoods that are predominantly white often are never targeted by police.

San Francisco’s immigrant population is at around 35%, which is actually less than it was during most of the 19th and early 20th century. Immigrants have always been a vital and integral part of our city. Unfortunately, we’ve also been home to xenophobic movements—whether it be Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, or today, with the demonization of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants.There is no correlation between public safety and increased deportation rates. Increased collaboration between police and ICE also does not affect crime rates. In fact, many studies show that when cities stop colluding with ICE, crime rates go down.By focusing the piece on immigration, the articled reinforced xenophobic stereotypes.