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The Standard Q&A: Public Defender Francisco Ugarte Talks DA Chesa Boudin, Drug Cases and Immigration
Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Standard Q&A: Public Defender Francisco Ugarte Talks DA Chesa Boudin, Drug Cases and Immigration

Chesa Boudin and Francisco Ugarte

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.

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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.

  • Interesting how he left out Portugal’s incredibly punitive approach for drug dealers and how they have again prosecuted those users found with larger drug quantities… These people. To those centered in the realm of reality, do not fall for these “progressive” delusions. They do care more about the hard working people of SF.

  • This is just ridiculous. The PD is doing the work of the DA here, which has been a complaint against Chesa all along; that the two divisions have merged, and that the public and crime victims have suffered because of this. The Recall campaign’s point just got made for them here.

    At the end of the day, fentanyl has devastated the city. And the DA has adopted policies that place those responsible for this right back out on the street. Nothing in the PD’s writing disputes that.

  • This is amazing! A criminal defense attorney is defending the district attorney. Couldn’t have been scripted any better. Criminal defense lawyers have never had it so easy. Every criminal gets a sweetheart deal with chesa, “because being really lenient with criminals makes them stop committing crimes” is the latest extremism with obvious detrimental consequences.

  • Well the public defender’s office is probably creating cubicle space for Chesa as we speak. It will be a homecoming for the defrocked DA.

  • Campers,

    It is truly amazing how much smarter Raju and Gonzalez and Boudin and Gascon are than the Hater Colony feeding at the trough of the billionaires here.

    On a related topic:

    What is the Standard’s call on Cannibalism ?

    That’s a tenet of the Catholic Church.

    Called Transubstantiation.

    Article of Faith that you belief that the pasta wafer turns to flesh and blood when you eat it.

    They say it right to your face and make you repeat it:

    “This is my body.”

    “This is my blood.”

    Don’t take communion/commit cannibalism and you go to Hell.

    So, Corleone is condemning Nancy Pelosi to Hell for not agreeing to be a Cannibal ?

    And … they’re one of the nice religions.

    Y’all hate anyone not rich and white or a paid off Uncle Tom or Aunt Jemima.

    But, of course, all of y’all going to Heaven,

    See the Warriors come back tonite?

    Chesa gonna do that in twenty-four days.

    Like the Stengal Case, the new billionaire lap dog/SF Standard will erase all traces of their having been involved in any aspect of the campaign.

    Talking point of day for Matt Smith and all Standard reporters?

    “Chesa, who?”

    You guys really are a cruel bunch.

    You didn’t mention that Ugarte sat first chair to Gonzalez in the Steinle/Zarate case where they rescued a starving immigrant eating out of garbage cans on the Dock of the Bay who became involved in a horrific accident that killed one of God’s brightest lights.

    So, you with Donald Trump on that one too?

    Did you know that a right wing judge has labeled Zarate insane to keep him in prison forever?

    Anyway, go Warriors!

    Now you can erase this but I’ve already screen shot and posted it on my own site at:

    SFBulldogblog.wordpress.com

    My total overhead for my operation is under fifty bucks a month at Rudy’s, Monkeybrains.

    I don’t think SF Sports teams overall have ever had better management on and off ‘turfs’.

    h.

  • Portugal laws were tragically changed to be more punitive in 2008 by an activist supreme court very similar to ours. The courts rulings have turned back the clock on reform-unfortunately.

  • Recallers,

    Why have these arguments now when there is no actual alternative to the DA or his policies that we, the voters, can have as a real choice? The real election, where real life candidates and their ideas, will be up for our evaluation and decision will happen next year. I have not heard one specific policy or step that the recallers expect the new DA to take to improve the situation and why you think the mayor will appoint someone who will take those specific steps. In just one year, you can choose the candidate of your choice to support and be more assured of getting what you think is needed, right?

    The failure of recallers to say anything except “Chesa is bad and solely responsible for crime in San Francisco” or “The DA can make fentanyl overdoses go down or up by himself” is a bit of a tell that they just don’t like how the election turned out and are afraid of another real election. Perhaps, I am only talking about the cynical powerbrokers who are leading this effort. I would love to hear a decent, evidenced backed argument from one of my fellow voters. I have great respect for them and, on the many occasions when my vote was in the minority, respected the outcome.

  • When immigrants came to the US in the 19th and early 20th century, the government was not obligated to provide welfare. That came from private charities. Currently, the US funds much more social welfare benefits and entitlements. I am not opposed to immigration but I support legal immigration.

  • Recallers,

    Why have these arguments now when there is no actual alternative to the DA or his policies that we, the voters, can have as a real choice? The real election, where real life candidates and their ideas, will be up for our evaluation and decision will happen next year. I have not heard one specific policy or step that the recallers expect the new DA to take to improve the situation and why you think the mayor will appoint someone who will take those specific steps. In just one year, you can choose the candidate of your choice to support and be more assured of getting what you think is needed, right?

    The failure of recallers to say anything except “Chesa is bad and solely responsible for crime in San Francisco” or “The DA is can make fentanyl overdoses go down or up by himself” is a bit of a tell that they just don’t like how the election turned out and are afraid of another real election.

  • Please journalists for the Standard, you seem to be giving thecDA supporters so much time defending their innane posturing WHY Chesa deserves to keep his job? Much of what the public defender stated is WHY so many of us MODERATE voting DEMS are just plain tired of his experiments which are only reinforcing bad criminal behavior and getting innocent people killed in SF!
    A DA’s office # 1 can’t be operated with 2 like minded public defenders working on the same case? This is an adversarial process and DA’s have a job to do!!

  • I’m worn out by this debate. And I am a Democrat to the left of the left. But after living in the tenderloin for 14 years I’m willing to make a mistake to see some sort of change. Too much virtual signaling.

  • Yes, the was on drugs has been a disaster but, the point is not to make San Francisco attractive to drug dealers by a lenient DA who is intent on protecting immigration status. There’s a reason SF has become a magnet for dealers.

  • Sorry, but if you’re an immigrant who has been granted sanctuary from the dangers of your home country, and you respond by dealing drugs here, you’ve squandered your right to stay.

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