Despite the number of hate crimes occurring against the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, few convictions are made. With her city reporting one of the highest rates of violence against the AAPI community, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins has vowed to hold perpetrators accountable.
In addition to promising justice, Jenkins said her office would review a number of high-profile anti-Asian attacks for any evidence to support hate crime charges. The cases in question were originally reviewed by the city’s former District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
“We shouldn’t be selective about which laws we choose to enforce,” Jenkins told NBC News. “Particularly the hate crimes laws, which were developed in this country to protect certain vulnerable communities.”
Several AAPI community members have praised the initiative and Boudin’s replacement. While in office, Boudin was consistently criticized by several AAPI advocates for what they called his lack of attention to AAPI issues and his inability to hold perpetrators accountable.
According to a poll conducted by the San Francisco Standard in May, two-thirds of Asian voters backed Boudin’s recall in June, the highest level of all racial groups.
According to the city’s own data, San Francisco reported the highest increase in attacks against the AAPI community the city has ever seen. Preliminary figures released by SFPD show that hate crimes against the AAPI community went up 567% from the previous year. An increase from nine victims to 60 was reported between 2020 to 2021.
Jenkins, when elected, vowed to make changes, ensuring AAPI community members that the DA office “hears them.”
“I come to you as a sign of change,” Jenkins said after being sworn into office. “You’ve been struggling with feeling unheard and unseen … by the San Francisco D.A.’s Office”
She added: “You are now seen, and you are now heard.”
Jenkins, the first Latina to hold office, said her office would begin examining dozens of criminal cases reviewed by the San Francisco Standard and KQED in a June article. According to NBC News, while all 12 cases were initially investigated as hate crimes, only two were charged as such.
Jenkins will be working with Nancy Tung, a veteran Bay Area prosecutor, to lead the investigation.
“I’m optimistic that she’s bringing a new perspective to the issue of how to address intergroup violence and fight Asian hate,” said Charles Jung of Jenkins, a trial lawyer and executive director of the California Asian Pacific American Bar Association. He praised Jenkins’ devotion to additional resources for the hate crimes unit and collaboration with Asian American leaders.
While legal experts say hate crimes are difficult to prosecute, mainly due to lack of proof of motive, Jenkins said her office would gather evidence by analyzing video footage and defendants’ online communications.
“We know, generally, that when someone utters a slur at the time of the assault, it makes their animus very clear,” she said. “We also want to look at someone’s social media and text message history.”
According to NBC News, a hate crime enhancement can add up to three years of prison time to any other sentence a defendant receives for an underlying felony. While a “relatively minor” change in the legal system, this step could heavily impact victims, Jenkins said.
“We’re not talking about something that’s catastrophically changing the legal landscape, but it means a whole lot to victims,” she said.
While some advocates are excited to see the changes and efforts toward increased accountability, others noted the consequences of such changes, including how hate crime and gang enhancement laws disproportionately impact Black and brown people. People of color are more impacted not because they commit more crimes, but because they more targeted, says civil rights lawyer and chief of policy at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office Angela Chan, who emphasized the negatives of Jenkins’ new initiative.
“Even if these laws don’t result in more prosecutions and convictions,” Chan told NBC News, “they’ll result in more funding to police, which comes at a cost to funding for evidence-based prevention programs and community investments that get at the root of the issues.”
This isn’t the first time Jenkins has questioned Boudin’s judgment on cases. In another incident, Jenkins sought a delay in a resentencing case of a man who is serving life in prison for a 2008 murder, the SF Chronicle reported. The man was recommended to receive a shorter sentence that would lead to his release, due in part to alleged police misconduct in the case by Boudin’s Innocence Commission.
In an email statement to NBC News, Boudin commented on Jenkins’ plan to reinvestigate criminal cases, calling it “deeply disappointing” and misinformed.
“Playing politics with charging decisions made by veteran prosecutors based on the law and the evidence gathered by police is a ruse, and it will not make the city safer,” he said.
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