|R. Gil Kerlikowske (left), director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, visits Judge Lillian Sing at the Community Justice Center. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle / SF|
Community Justice Center passes the test
By C.W. Nevius
San Francisco Chronicle
January 10, 2013
In 2008, the Community Justice Center was a wedge issue in San Francisco.
There were City Hall demonstrations calling it a "poverty court." Public Defender Jeff Adachi refused to staff it. And when funding for the program was put on the ballot, it lost by 12 percentage points.
Luckily, the money was already in place for a one-year pilot program, or it would have died.
In retrospect, that sounds laughable.
Based on the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, San Francisco's Community Justice Court opened in March 2009 and never looked back. The premise is that people who are caught in the Tenderloin committing nonviolent felonies such as small drug sales, auto break-ins or shoplifting can avoid jail time and go to the Community Justice Center to enroll in a program for help with the problem - drug addiction, alcoholism or mental illness - that landed them there. In just under four years, more than 7,800 cases have been heard, involving more than 5,000 defendants.
This week R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of President Obama's Office of National Drug Control Policy, came to observe and praise the program. He said it was such a model that he's recommending that law enforcement officials from other countries visit the San Francisco program.
"I'd send them to Red Hook," he joked, "but I think they'd have a better time here."
"When he goes to the CJC, the defendant has already agreed that he committed the offense," Gascón said.
And we're not talking about admitting guilt in a jailhouse conversation. At a hearing this week, Judge Lillian Sing had the defendants "yes ma'am-ing" and "no ma'am-ing" like crazy.
"You failed," she told one.
"Yes ma'am, I did."
Those who are admitted to the program are assigned a service provider and required to appear in court. Typically a defendant will be required to appear once a week, but repeat offenders may be ordered to appear two, three or even five times a week. Defendants in traditional court cases don't have that level of accountability.
"The court has slowly come into its own," said Adachi, who now supports the program. "They began handling more serious cases, felonies and drug cases, which were plaguing the Tenderloin. At first it was a homeless court."
Hearing that still gets a rise out of Lisa Lightman, director of San Francisco Collaborative Courts, which oversees Drug Court, Truancy Court, and Youth Family Violence Court.
"We were never a homeless court," she says, voice rising a bit. "But we kept getting that persistent story."
Whatever. The story is that this is working. Just ask Tenderloin Station Capt. Joe Garrity.
"The CJC lets us focus on the organized crime rather than the disorganized crime," he says. "We're able to take on the street dealers, rather than the guy selling a couple of pills for something to eat."
Garrity says property crimes are up 12 percent in the city. In the Tenderloin, they are down 2 percent. Tenderloin narcotics arrests are up 6 percent, which is exactly the trend Garrity wants to see.
Looking beyond crime
The larger issue is what Kerlikowske focused on when he was here.
"Most courts around the country think people are arrested for a drug violation," he said. "We see district attorneys who say, 'Why put them into services? Let them do 30 days in jail. And then when they re-offend, let them do another 30 days.' Here you are seeing the nexus of the drug issue, which is that there are other problems, addiction and mental health. That is what is so impressive."
Trust us, Mr. Director: It didn't seem impressive when it began. But it looks great now.