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City HallThe AgendaThe criminal justice system in SF is badly broken, and the mayor's...

The criminal justice system in SF is badly broken, and the mayor’s budget doesn’t help

Hearings show overcrowded, dangerous jails, overloaded public defenders—and a DA who is doubling down on making things even worse.


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The Board of Supes Budget and Appropriations Committee heard from various parts of the criminal justice system Friday, and we learned several things: There will be no Sheriff’s Department civilian oversight for the next two years at least. The courts, the jails, and Public Defender’s Office are understaffed, and the sheriff has no clear plan to address recruitment problems.

Oh, and this is to a great extent the fault of the mayor and the district attorney, who are insisting on arresting a prosecuting low-level drug dealers and users, so the entire local criminal justice system is badly broken.

It started with the presentation of Terry Wiley, the newly hired inspector general who is supposed to monitor complaints against sheriff’s deputies. The voters approved this position, and put it in the City Charter. The language of the charter amendment states that the Office of the Inspector General shall include “no fewer than one investigator for every 100 sworn SFSD employees.”

Sup. Hillary Ronen says the budget is so bad she can’t support it. Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino Smith

There are almost 800 sworn deputies today. Wiley asked for two investigators. The mayor approved zero. None. There will be no civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Department unless the supes change that.

Then we heard from the Superior Court, which must by law provide defense lawyers for indigent people who can’t be represented by the Public Defender’s Office. Some of that is pretty routine: If there are multiple defendants in a case, it might pose a conflict for the same legal office to represent all of them, so those go to the court’s “conflicts panel” of private lawyers who get paid to handle the cases.

But it’s also the case that if the PD concludes that they just don’t have enough staff to properly handle all of their cases, they can bow out of some of them and hand them to the court. Which has to pay for private counsel.

That’s expensive, and there’s not enough money in the court budget to handle the possibility that the way overburdened SF public defender can’t take on all of the new drug cases the DA is filing.
As Sup. Hillary Ronen noted:

The balance is off, and this is a policy choice that I know the mayor really supports, these additional prosecutors and  the charging of felonies instead of misdemeanors, not using the, diversions that have been historically used. That’s a policy that I personally have a disagreement with. But that’s not my decision to make. That’s the prosecutor’s decision to make. And something that the mayor very much supports. But if that’s going to happen, then we need to make sure the entire system is functioning. That means we need to make sure our public defenders have enough attorneys to do proper defense.

Public Defender Mano Raju then appeared and said that the felony caseloads for his staff have gone from 50 cases to 75 in just the past two years—and that’s almost double the load that PDs in other Bay Area counties have. That means it’s harder, in some cases much harder, to provide an adequate defense—which leads to wrongful convictions. Raju said that he’s gone to the county jail in San Bruno to talk to a client—but had to wait two hours because there was no deputy available to move the prisoner, and ended up having to leave for another meeting. That delays trials, and leads to even more jail overcrowding.s

And guess what? For the first time in many years, lawyers are leaving what was always the pinnacle of the public defense profession in the region. Raju:

There are some attorneys who come here and say we appreciate everything you’re doing. We appreciate the standards and the support. But the caseload is just too high. And we had an attorney who came knowing about our reputation but went back to his county because he just couldn’t handle the caseload. And we’ve had others go to surrounding counties for the first time.

This is not about pay. It’s about a policy that the mayor and the DA have created, and take no responsibility for.


What is happening? Conditions in the jail are dangerous. The fact that we have the highest caseload by far in any surrounding counties for a PD. We used to be known for being on the cutting edge of criminal justice. We used to have, the PD’s Office, which was the best in the entire country with attorneys clamoring to come and work here. Now we’re losing them to surrounding counties. We used to have some of the most cutting edge programs in our jails so that people were actually leaving better off when they came in. Now we’re on lockdown most of the time, and our sheriffs are getting beat up. Maybe this hasn’t gotten the attention that it’s gotten because the victims are black or the victims are poor. The victims are mentally ill, the victims are addicted to drugs. So maybe we can just say we don’t care about what happens to them. But that’s not the way that I feel. And I don’t think that’s the way this Board of Supervisors feel. And I don’t think we should let this budget go through.

Sup. Shamann Walton added:

I’m just literally really starting to wonder what the point of the Constitution is. The District Attorney’s Office receives about $40 more million dollars than the Public defender’s Office. And it also just seems to focus on public safety here in this city  has nothing to do with preventing crime. We don’t want to address the reasons people offend, like poverty, higher cost of living, unemployment—and for some reason, this mantra of lock everyone up, is what people are focused on and they think they’re going to solve the problems, even though we know historically that has never worked.

DA Brooke Jenkins appeared and said that her top priorities are closing open-air drug markets, and cracking down on property crimes and attacks on seniors.

She later said, “we have to prosecute serious and violent crimes.”

Attacks on seniors are serious, violent crimes. Using drugs in public is not. But that policy is creating a massive crisis that the mayor’s budget doesn’t address.

The hearings continue Thursday/20. Thursday’s lineup:

Treasurer and Tax Collector, Office of the Assessor/Recorder, Office of the Asian Arts Museum Fine Arts Museum Arts Commission War Memorial Status of Women, Department on the General Responsibility Controller, Office of the Technology, Department of Early Childhood, Department of Economic and Workforce Development, Office of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Department of Public Health, Department of Human Services Agency Human Rights Commission Children, Youth and Their Families, Department of City Administrator, Office of the Recreation and Park, Board of Supervisors.

I have a question perhaps the supes can pose to the Assessor/Recorder: Why, in the tech capital of the world, is the Assessor/Recorder’s website so horrible that it’s almost impossible to use? Public data that used to be easily available on that site is now hard to find and hard to get. To do any real property research, I have to go down to City Hall and use the computers in the office there.
Many, many other counties in the country (and in the world) have figured this out. What’s wrong here?

That hearing starts at 10am, and will continue Friday/21.

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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