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Has San Francisco DA Brooke Jenkins’ drug-dealing crackdown made a dent?

San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins | Lu Chen/The Standard

Newly appointed District Attorney Brooke Jenkins stood in a dark blue blazer above the rotunda at San Francisco City Hall, a pair of flags behind her. For months, she’d campaigned to recall her former boss, Chesa Boudin, saying that the city needed a warrior to clean up its streets.

But on that July day, she had the job.

“We are at a tipping point in San Francisco,” she said in her first speech as district attorney on July 8, 2022. “San Franciscans do not feel safe.” 

Brooke Jenkins promises to crack down on open-air drug-dealing during her swearing-in ceremony on July 8, 2022. | Courtesy SFGovTV

Jenkins' rhetoric was aimed at what many saw as the worsening state of the city’s streets post-Covid, with increased open-air drug-dealing and overdoses—all imparting a sense of lawlessness that many, fairly or not, laid in the lap of Boudin. 

Jenkins quickly adopted a more punitive approach to crime than her progressive predecessor both in tone and substance, homing in on repeat narcotics offenders and drug dealers, whom she targeted with more stringent policies and harsher rhetoric. She threatened to charge dealers with murder if their drugs lead to overdoses, said she’d add years to sentences for those who deal near schools and revoked what she termed “lenient” plea offers made by Boudin.

But there is little evidence on the streets that these tactics are working, and many say they are merely a return to a failed "war on drugs." Instead of focusing on diversion and treatment, which were part of Boudin’s approach, Jenkins has put more of her tools toward jailing drug dealers and punishing users. 

Reports of drug offenses have increased 41% since she took office. Overdose deaths driven by the fentanyl epidemic are on pace to hit a record high, having hit 268 as of the end of April. Things have become so dire that Gov. Gavin Newsom sent in state law enforcement to help patrol the epicenter of the drug crisis in the Tenderloin as numerous local operations have sprouted to tackle the issue.

While data provided by the DA’s Office shows that Jenkins is beginning to differentiate herself from Boudin—she is charging more drug cases and sending far fewer people to diversion programs, which offer alternatives to conviction—her increased caseload has yet to lead to a sizable change in drug convictions. In fact, in her first 11 months in office, she convicted fewer drug dealers than Boudin over the last 11 months of his time as district attorney. 

Jenkins said her approach to running the District Attorney’s Office will simply take more time to bear fruit. Cases can take years to yield convictions, and righting an office that was driven more by a progressive ideology than the law cannot happen overnight, she said in emailed statements.

Her office is also still unveiling new policies, which include charging drug users who are arrested more than once for possession, which stands in contrast to past years when charging people for having drugs or paraphernalia on them was not a priority. 

San Francisco police officers and DA Brooke Jenkins attend a press conference with Mayor London Breed and Police Chief Bill Scott on Jan. 26, 2023, at the Lady Shaw Senior Center in San Francisco Chinatown. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

While both Jenkins and her critics agree that the drug crisis will not be solved by the criminal justice system alone, those who oppose her tough-on-crime tactics say that the crackdown is misguided and cannot solve what is, in reality, a public-health emergency, with suppliers who cannot be arrested out of existence.  

“I think what we're seeing—a year into what was billed as a different approach to drug use and sales—is that it doesn't work,” said Cristine Soto DeBerry, who heads an association for progressive district attorneys called the Prosecutors Alliance of California. “We don't have anything to show for it.”

DeBerry —shortly Boudin's chief of staff— advocates for a holistic, citywide approach that does not solely rely on arrest and prosecution but also treatment and other efforts to help end the cause of the addiction crisis.

A Changed Strategy With Mixed Results  

In her first 11 months in office, Jenkins charged more people for drug offenses and filed more drug cases against alleged repeat offenders than Boudin did in his last 11 months as top prosecutor, according to data provided by her office. This could be at least partially attributed to police making more drug arrests during her tenure—there was talk when Boudin was in office that police were on an unofficial strike, illustrated in a number of instances when police seemingly let criminals go free. Overall, she has filed 240 more drug cases and 47 more repeat-offender cases than Boudin.

Jenkins has also secured more felony drug convictions than Boudin in those same time periods, with 35 felony drug convictions compared with Boudin’s 26.

But Jenkins has convicted fewer people than Boudin for overall drug offenses, which include possession and drug dealing: Boudin convicted 63 people compared with 48 convictions by Jenkins.

And data published by her office also shows that she is charging a smaller percentage of a growing number of drug cases presented to her office by police than Boudin during his only full year as district attorney.

In 2021, Boudin’s office charged 73% of drug cases brought by police. Jenkins has a 68% filing rate so far in 2023.

Her administration argues that Jenkins should be judged by the sheer number of drug cases she has filed compared to Boudin, not the rate of prosecution.

In a statement, Jenkins also blamed defense attorneys for her office not having more to show for her prosecutions against drug dealers.

“As we have been taking a firmer stance against drug dealers, the defense bar, as expected, has shifted tactics,” Jenkins said. “They are turning straightforward cases into prolonged affairs that ultimately do not benefit their clients, clog the courts and fail to advance justice or public safety.”

San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, left, addresses the media alongside Mayor London Breed, right, to introduce new efforts to combat open air drug-dealing and use on Oct. 5, 2022. | Don Feria for The Standard

She also said that she does not have more convictions because her office has chosen to prosecute people through the traditional court system rather than put them through diversion programs that offer court-monitored treatment, which, if completed, allows people to avoid convictions.

As district attorney, Boudin was criticized for relying too heavily on diversion, which he said reduced the number of people in jail for low-level offenses. 

Jenkins sent 36 people to diversion so far this year as of late June compared with Boudin’s 167 people in 2021. 

She said diversion should only be used for people with addictions, not drug dealers.

Boudin declined to comment for this story.

Last week, Jenkins’ office announced that it won the first jury trial for a felony narcotics trial since 2017 against a man who had 100 grams of fentanyl.

Critics and Supporters 

With little success to see on the streets, critics are quick to say that Jenkins will fail.

Retired San Francisco Judge Ellen Chaitin said Jenkins’ tough talk against drug-dealing is just public relations. Instead of addressing the root causes of the drug crisis, such as addiction, despair and homelessness, she said Jenkins is attacking the symptoms.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin speaks at a press conference on Nov. 23, 2021, in San Francisco. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

“People are frustrated and becoming disillusioned because nothing is changing,” said Chaitin, an opponent of Boudin's recall who has criticized Breed and Jenkins.

But others are hopeful that her administration can make at least some progress.

Terry Asten Bennett, the president of the Castro Merchants Association, said she feels that Jenkins is at least striking the right tone compared with Boudin.

“Things have marginally improved, but it’s really a very low benchmark,” Bennett said.

The Coming Election 

Jenkins only has about a year and a half until her next election in November 2024, when voters will have had more time to assess her progress in attacking open-air drug-dealing. 

But the stakes are higher now than when she took office. In recent months, Jenkins, her law enforcement partners and the political establishment have doubled down on her law-and-order approach. In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom called in the National Guard and the California Highway Patrol to help enforce drug laws in San Francisco, and in mid-June, Mayor London Breed announced that police will begin arresting people openly using drugs, which is a continuation of a practice initiated after Jenkins took office of citing people for possession of drug paraphernalia. 

Only time will tell if these tactics have an impact. In the meantime, Jenkins has begun to raise funds for her reelection bid, pushing a more hopeful tone than when she was put into office. 

In a message to her supporters last week, she asked for funds to support her campaign.

“I carry a renewed faith to build our city to what it can and should be,” she wrote.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include the fact that Cristine Soto DeBerry worked in Boudin's administration and that retired Judge Ellen Chaitin opposed his recall.

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at

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