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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Drug policyBreed continues to push arrests as solution to substance-abuse issues

Breed continues to push arrests as solution to substance-abuse issues

Evidence shows this policy never works as right-wingers continue to push their attacks on local judges

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Mayor London Breed is doubling down on her strategy of arresting people who are not just dealing drugs but using drugs—and the evidence so far suggests that, as many of us suspected, it isn’t working.

Meanwhile, the effort to go after judges who aren’t tough enough on criminal suspects continues.

At the Board of Supes meeting Tuesday, Breed said that the police have made 660 arrests for drug sales in the Tenderloin, about twice the number for all of last year. Cops seized more than 200 pounds of fentanyl.

Mayor London Breed keeps saying we can arrest our way out of the drug crisis. Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

The California Highway Patrol has made another 100 arrests, and District Attorney Brooke Jenkins has filed more than 500 drug cases.

She said that the city’s outreach workers have interacted with 300 people, but only eight accepted substance abuse treatment.

Her response: “We have to strengthen our laws for force more people into treatment.”

That means criminalizing substance abuse problems, putting more people into jail, and returning to the failed War on Drugs, which has created massive social problems.

The Treatment on Demand Coalition, which includes more than 50 community-based organizations, including HealtRight360, the city’s leading center for substance abuse treatment, notes:

We strongly oppose Mayor London Breed’s law enforcement-first approach to matters of public health, to arrest people using drugs in public, and to forcibly subject them to treatment while in jail. This effort is counterproductive, misguided, shortsighted, lacks a supporting evidence base, morally questionable, a waste of community resources, and will endanger our most vulnerable and marginalized community members.

The War on Drugs, which this regressive initiative irrefutably represents, and the criminalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs (PWUD), have resulted in generational harms, abhorrent racial disparities, overfilled our prisons, and led to increased distrust of police. What it has not done is reduce substance use in any meaningful way. This current law enforcement strategy is a replication of decades of failure. The proposed initiative involving arresting PWUD for public drug use, incarcerating them, and coercing them into treatment, will not decrease overdoses. Rather it will actually increase overdose deaths in San Francisco. This is what the evidence shows. As an article published  in the American Journal of Public Health makes clear, we cannot arrest our way out of a health problem. A new AJPH study of two years of data shows that police seizure of opioids – any kind, any amount – predicted a two-fold increase in overdoses in the surrounding area for up to three weeks. If seizing drugs were a predictor of protecting public health, we should expect overdoses to decrease afterward; however, they doubled.

And yet, Breed called for “a commitment to ending public drug use on our streets. This means aggressive enforcement of drug use and sales. We’ll hold people accountable and continue to help those who are in need. This is our approach and I will not deviate.”

From the public health groups:

Research also demonstrates that offering readily available, low-threshold, evidence-based, voluntary treatment in the community produces far better outcomes than forcing people into treatment against their will; yet, the city has not prioritized this. Government’s failure to provide proven solutions is not an excuse for draconian and counterproductive measures enacted for political purposes. Coercive treatment is especially dangerous for when individuals reenter the community and experience a return to use – as commonly occurs with untreated substance use disorders. Risk of fatal overdose is twice as high after involuntary treatment or civil commitment for substance use disorder as opposed to voluntary treatment. 8 It cannot be overstated that forced treatment in carceral settings ultimately raises the risk of overdose death. Coerced treatment, too, is likely to disproportionately impact low-income communities and people of color while abrogating the progress that we have made toward creating a safer, healthier California by closing penal institutions and investing in health services.

Forced treatment punishes people for their illness, perpetuates cycles of incarceration, and leads to disparate racial outcomes in health.

In fact, every local news report suggests that the mayor’s approach isn’t working. Even the Chron, which has generally been in support of Breed’s approach, has to admit there’s a problem:

On a recent day, the corner of Turk and Hyde streets appeared as rife with drug dealing and use as any other time in recent years. Parents walked by passed-out drug users to drop kids off at school. Hoodie-wearing dealers clandestinely slipped baggies to customers. 

Randy Shaw, who often disagrees with me and other progressives about housing and criminal-justice issues, is pretty clear:

Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, agreed with Preston, saying that arresting dealers and users at similar rates is an “extremely misguided strategy.” Police officials should be focused on increasing foot patrols and stationing officers at corners frequented by drug dealers, Shaw said.

“Have they sharply reduced open-air drug dealing in the Tenderloin? The answer is no,” Shaw said in an interview. “To show such little progress in all this time is inexcusable, and it’s because Chief (Scott) fails to change a failed strategy.”

Meanwhile StopCrimeSF, which calls for more incarceration and seeks to have more suspects held in jail until trial, is preparing a “report card” on the 13 local judges who are up for election in March 2024.

From a survey the group sent to prosecutors in the District Attorney’s Office, a copy of which I’ve obtained under the California Public Records Act:

As a reminder, thirteen incumbent Superior Court judges will be running for re-election next March. Since most voters receive little or no useful information about these candidates beyond their education and previous jobs, our group will be preparing written evaluations of each judge as part of our public education project. For more information about our 5,000-member organization, please visit our website at www.stopcrimesf.com.

The dean of the law school at UC Berkeley, Edwin Chemerinsky, who is one of the most respected legal scholars in the nation, has a problem with this:

A seemingly innocuous announcement this week by the group Stop Crime SF that said it will be evaluating judges on their records in criminal cases is a serious threat to judicial independence. Stop Crime SF, in its press release, made its agenda clear: It wants judges to be tougher. In practice, this means they want judges who will rule in favor of the police when there are claims of excessive force or violations of suspects’ constitutional rights. Most of all, they want judges who will impose harsher sentences on criminal defendants. The organization’s announcement declared: “At a time when drug overdose deaths are at an all-time high, many chronic drug dealers and other repeat violent felons are free on our streets because of overly lenient court rulings.”

Of course, it is entirely appropriate to evaluate those who run for judicial office or for re-election to the bench. But this is really about putting pressure on judges to impose longer sentences knowing that the failure to do so will make them vulnerable at the next election. Every judge will realize that a harsher sentence will help them retain their coveted positions, while lighter sentences — no matter how appropriate in the facts of a specific case — will hurt their electoral chances.

The assumption of Stop Crime SF is that having judges impose harsher sentences, especially for drug crimes, will decrease crime in the city. However, there is no evidence to support this claim. Studies have shown that crime rates are a product of many factors, but the length of sentences is not among them.

That’s the data. Here’s what StopCrimeSF’s John Trasviña,  the immediate past Dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law, has to say:


In 2022, San Franciscans spoke loudly and recalled the former District Attorney. On March 5, 2024, voters can make our voices heard in contested judicial races. Through StopCrimeSF’s leadership, voters will be armed with fact-based analysis to cast informed votes and elect judges who will promote justice, public safety and our values as a city.

The politics here are clear: StopCrimeSF is riding high on its recall of Chesa Boudin, and now wants to get rid of judges because the right wing can’t blame the mayor or the DA for the fact that crime has gotten worse since Boudin left office.

I have no problem with judicial elections. Under the state Constitution, local Superior Court judges are elected officials, and it’s fine if activists decide to challenge them.

By law, if nobody files to challenge a sitting judge, they don’t even appear on the ballot.

But this isn’t about getting a more diverse bench, or getting public defenders, who almost never get appointed as judges, a chance.

It’s a clear and direct effort to force local judges to put more people in jail.

Forget ideology and politics for a moment, and just deal with reality: This has never worked. And yet, it’s what the mayor and her allies are promoting.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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