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The Q&A: Brooke Jenkins talks about balancing reform with safety and how SF can hold her accountable

SF new District Attorney, Brooke Jenkins, on Thursday, July 7, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. Paul Kuroda for The Standard.

As San Francisco’s new district attorney, Brooke Jenkins is pledging to restore order to the city while ensuring that criminal justice reform does not come at the cost of public safety. In her first two public addresses, Jenkins said she wants to crack down on drug dealing and advance progressive policies that will make San Francisco’s justice system more fair.

But The Standard wanted to know what those promises will look like in reality.

Jenkins, 40, was appointed by Mayor London Breed after quitting the District Attorney’s Office to lead the effort to recall her former boss, District Attorney Chesa Boudin. She previously spent seven years as a local prosecutor.

Hours after her swearing in Friday, Jenkins made time for a brief phone call with The Standard. She talked not only about how she planned to hold drug dealers accountable, but also about how San Franciscans can hold her accountable as the city’s top cop. 

She addressed one of her first tests as district attorney: whether to recuse her office from a case involving a family member. And while some are concerned about what her appointment means for the future of criminal justice reform, Jenkins said she had not made up her mind about undoing Boudin’s policies.

Jenkins took the phone call shortly before meeting with upper management at the District Attorney’s Office, which is largely made up of former public defenders who became prosecutors under Boudin. It’s unclear whether any heads are on the chopping block.

Below is our conversation with Jenkins, edited for clarity.

How should the public hold you accountable as San Francisco’s new district attorney? Can you talk a little bit about your benchmarks for success? 

That’s an interesting question. 

I think, obviously, the benchmarks are going to be what the residents of San Francisco feel. Do they feel that they have someone who is setting a new tone in San Francisco, who is expressing and demonstrating their commitment to prioritizing public safety and making a difference in what they are feeling out on the streets? 

I’ve made it abundantly clear over the last eight-and-a-half, nine months that no district attorney is, on their own, responsible for the levels of crime in a particular jurisdiction. But we do have a job to serve as a deterrent to those who choose to commit crime and to do our best to curtail it. 

So people I’m sure will look at data, right? Crime statistics and data. And of course there has to be time for policies to take effect and actually have an impact on the court system, which is very slow in certain cases. But I think it’s really up to the residents deciding whether or not they think that I am working relentlessly to change the landscape of what they’ve been feeling. 

But if crime is going up, is that a reflection of you?

I think it depends on a number of factors. I think if there are policies that are failing that are contributing to that, then yes: that would be on my shoulders. If there is something that our office is failing to do to address certain types of crime, when we could be doing more, then yes. But like I said, I don’t think it’s a simple black-or-white answer.

Gotcha. Thank you. So you’ve already—in your two speeches thus far—you’ve talked a lot about cracking down on “open-air drug markets.” And I think today you said you would enforce drug laws on day one. What does that mean in practical terms? What’s your strategy? 

What it means is we are no longer going to minimize that conduct anymore, you know. 

When you have an entire calendar year where you charged hundreds of cases involving the sale of fentanyl and methamphetamine and crack cocaine, and only three people are required to actually plead to that conduct, that’s a problem, in my view. And that is not using the laws that we have to hold those who choose to violate our drug laws accountable, certainly those who have more than one open case at a time or who are repeat offenders.

And so we have to change the way that we are approaching those cases. No longer is [drug dealing] going to be considered a victimless crime in this office. People are dying.

So what you’re saying is you’re not going to be pleading out those possession-with-intent-to-sell cases to Penal Code 32 accessory after-the-fact?

There will be flexibility from the standpoint that, again, I have made it clear for the last nine months: I don’t believe that removing prosecutorial discretion is appropriate in a DA’s office. 

Every offender is different, every offender’s criminal history is different, every set of case facts is different. And so we always need to maintain our discretion to handle each offender in the way that they need to be handled. So I’m not going to sit here and represent that we are not going to ever give somebody a PC 32, but I don’t think you’re going to see any sort of overwhelming number of misdemeanor pleas.

I see. Earlier today, we reported that a defense attorney in the Sincere Pomar case is alleging you have a conflict because of your family connection to the case [Jenkins’ husband’s cousin was the victim]. My condolences. I did want to ask, though, will you recuse yourself from the case and ask another agency to handle the prosecution?

That case—and there might be others—we need to make sure that we are ethically handling or not handling. Those decisions will be made very, very quickly. But we will make sure as an office that we are not … handling any where there is any potential conflict of interest.

What about in this case? It was raised in open court today at a preliminary hearing.

Right. And I fully understand the concern. 

And so, again, I’m keenly aware of the existence of that case. It is a decision that will be made very quickly upon consulting outside agencies and the City Attorney’s Office, among others. 

But, again, in no way will we be handling any cases where there is a conflict of interest.

OK. If I can take 30 more seconds of your time, just a quick lightning round here. Will you end Boudin’s policy of never requesting cash bail?

I have not made any decisions on which policies I may end or alter. I’m going to try to maintain as many of the progressive policies that he instituted as we can responsibly. And that may mean certain alterations, much more so than, you know, blanketly removing them. But those decisions have not been made. I want to have a chance to sit down and evaluate them more closely and talk to the management staff and see what is appropriate. 

Do you believe the prosecutors should be allowed to request cash bail?

Yeah, I’ve maintained that, I believe that. 

I agree with moving away from cash bail. We need to be a system that is more fair—and certainly to people of color and to people who come from disadvantaged financial backgrounds—and I am committed to doing our best to maintain that. 

But I also need to evaluate how it is that we are going to do better about not releasing repeat offenders back into the public. And so, again, you know, those decisions have not been made. There need to be evaluations of what we can do.

I think you’ve gone public with saying that you believe gang enhancements should be brought back. Is that the case?

No, I have not gone public with saying that. What I said was we should not have one-size-fits-all approaches in any respect, that we should maintain prosecutorial discretion across the board. I cannot sit here and say there will never be a case where a gang enhancement or gang charge might not be appropriate. 

Is the policy of moving away from the overuse of those types of laws positive? Absolutely. I agree with the spirit of it. It mainly affects people who, you know, are of my particular racial background. But there are certain cases where it might be appropriate, particularly for certain murder cases … So we have to be able to use certain tools where we feel it’s appropriate. 

I have not made a decision yet about how we’re going to proceed on that front.

Last question. I know you’re meeting with the upper management of the DA’s office in about 10 minutes. What are you going to tell them? Are you firing anybody?

I’m going to talk to them about the needs that are ever present in the office today, on July 8, 2022—and that is it—and express to them my desire to bring this office back to a place of unity and reassure people. Because I understand that this has been a tumultuous time for this office.

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