By Tamara Barak Aparton, Staff Writer
San Francisco Examiner
SAN FRANCISCO — In a Tenderloin courtroom, a sleeping woman is roused to stand before Judge Ron Albers.
She is dazed and dirty, but she is there. She staggers to face the judge, shrinking into her baggy sweatshirt and casting her eyes downward.
She knows she missed her last appearance, she says. But she made it here today and she still wants treatment. Albers’ response is gentle.
“You deserve it if you can follow through,” he tells her. He reminds her that she has a lot of good people — such as social workers and drug counsellors — in her corner.
Albers, a San Francisco Superior Court commissioner, has presided over San Francisco’s Community Justice Center since its inception five months ago.
The spirit of the center is in contrast with that of a traditional courtroom, where an endless string of offenders is pushed through a clogged system.
The 9,000-square-foot center handles misdemeanor and nonviolent felonies in the SoMa, the Tenderloin and the area around Civic Center. It was created to treat the root problems associated with so-called quality-of-life crimes such as graffiti, drug sale and use, and shoplifting. Offenders are given on-site and immediate access to counseling and are referred to housing and treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues. They can sign up for state and federal assistance and are walked through what can be complicated bureaucratic processes by justice center staff.
Yet for all its noble intentions, the center has been caught in San Francisco’s thorny politics from the start.
Before it even opened, the center was mired in funding battles at the Board of Supervisors and the ballot box.
The center was championed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, but its critics says it duplicates efforts already handled elsewhere in the justice system.
Now, in its fifth month of serving clients, the difficulties have only intensified.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi says the Community Justice Center is a duplication of the longtime efforts of The City’s two other specialty courts: the drug court and the behavioral health court.
“Other than being able to sign up for [social security insurance] and in some cases get shelter, the services at the CJC were essentially the same type of outcomes as at the Hall of Justice,” said Adachi, who has tried to pull his staff out of the center, which he views as a waste of scant public resources. “This court was set up to provide different outcomes than what would happen at the Hall of Justice.”
A study commissioned by Adachi’s office found that 90 percent of justice center clients — the percentage served by a public defender — were found to be eligible for drug court and several other drug diversion programs already in place.
Much of the study, which was prepared by UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate Melissa Sills using public defender data from March to June of this year, is disputed by the justice center. Measuring duplication of services requires further analysis, said the center’s coordinator, Tomiquia Moss.
Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom, also disagreed with Adachi.
“He’s wrong,” Ballard said. “A similar program transformed Midtown Manhattan in the 1990s and we need to give it a chance to succeed here in San Francisco.”
Statistics from both the CJC and the Public Defender’s Office show that about 55 percent of cases handled by the justice center are dismissed. But supporters say that even in those cases, people are referred to critically needed services. About 55 percent of offenders showed up to court in the first four months, compared to 25 percent at the Hall of Justice, according to CJC data.
That attendance rate is steadily improving, and is currently at more than 60 percent, Albers said.
Both sides of the debate acknowledge that the type of court cases being handled isn’t what was initially anticipated. Before it opened, advocates said the court would be a place where police officers would send low-level offenders for citations like camping on the sidewalk or graffiti.
Today, most cases are funneled into the justice center from the District Attorney’s Office instead of the police. About 60 percent are probation violations from felony drug convictions, Albers said.
“It’s perfect for the population we’re targeting,” Albers said. These types of offenders are in and out of prison, costing the neighborhood its safety and the taxpayers their money, he said.
While supporters of the court describe its goals as organic, Adachi says the lack of clear definition is part of the problem.
“Courts like the Community Justice Center are best when they are dealing with real cases, substantial cases, and they have a high quality of service to offer. When you have both of those things, people will come to court. The challenge of the first phase of the CJC is it wasn’t clear what the focus was: Was it homeless people? Low-level drug cases? They relied on police to send cases to court and the volume was very low,” he said.
Albers acknowledged that police aren’t sending as many cases his way as the District Attorney’s Office is due to the sheer size and variation of the police units that serve the area.
But communication is improving and justice center staff is trying to increase the number, he said.
Paul Henderson, chief of administration for District Attorney Kamala Harris, said people who make use of the justice center’s large array of services and get the individual attention the center provides may be more successful than if they were offered the help through traditional courts or the prison system.
The battles over the Community Justice Center’s $1.3 million budget — which supervisors twice threatened to defund after voters rejected the center — fails to acknowledge the money saved by preventing recidivism, he said.
“That cost at the front end is always less than what it will be on the back end, once someone is in custody,” Henderson said.
But at only five months old, the court’s effect on the recidivism rate is too new to be measured.
“You have to build the car before you start measuring the amount of miles traveled,” he said.
Public defender says court stretches resources thin
A judge will decide today whether the Public Defender’s Office can drop its remaining cases at the Community Justice Center.
Citing insufficient staffing, Public Defender Jeff Adachi stopped taking new cases at the Tenderloin community court Aug. 3. Three days later, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn ruled that Adachi could drop cases in which his staff attorney had not yet established a working relationship with the defendant.
Kahn’s ruling relieved the public defender of about 200 cases at the justice center, or 75 percent of its caseload at the Polk Street facility, Adachi said. Today, Adachi will provide details of the remaining cases in the hopes they can be dropped as well.
At last week’s hearing, Adachi told Kahn he simply could not provide staffing to the justice center without causing problems for the majority of the public defender’s clients.
According to a 2009 Controller’s Office audit, San Francisco’s public defenders in 2008 were each handling, on average, 218 felony cases and 666 misdemeanor cases. That caseload is already well in excess of the American Bar Association’s standard of no more than 150 felony and 400 misdemeanor cases.
The overwhelming tide of cases appears to be calming. According to San Francisco Superior Court 2009 midyear criminal caseload statistics provided to the Mayor’s Office, new cases have dropped to nearly three-year lows. New felony filings through the first half of 2009 are down 8 percent from the first half of 2008. The court’s analysis also shows a two-year high on backlogged felony cases.
Meanwhile, monthly new misdemeanors filed remain near 30-year lows, according to the analysis, which was prepared by Presiding Judge James McBride. The judge attributed the drop in misdemeanor filings to a steady decrease in arrests for petty crimes and a decline in the district attorney filing charges in misdemeanor cases.
But while the caseload may be getting smaller, so is Adachi’s staff. This year, citywide budget cuts cost the office four attorneys, three paralegals, one investigator and two support staffers, Adachi said. It is facing additional cuts of $950,000.
Adachi said he agreed to staff the Community Justice Center because Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office promised to fund two attorneys to work there. Two weeks before the center opened in March, the Mayor’s Office informed Adachi that no attorneys would be provided due to budget cuts.
“I had two choices. I could not show up at court or I could staff it myself,” he said. Adachi spent up to six to seven hours a day at the Community Justice Center doing everything from data entry to paralegal work, he said.
The Public Defender’s Office has served about 200 clients in the five months the justice center has been open, Adachi said. In contrast, his office serves 29,000 clients a year at the Hall of Justice.
“We have 29,000 other clients who need help,” he said, adding that going back and forth from the Tenderloin to the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street would be a scheduling nightmare for attorneys who are already juggling too many cases.
Mayor’s Office spokesman Nathan Ballard called the dropped cases “a minor setback.”
“We’ve already started lining up volunteer attorneys who are eager to step in and represent the vulnerable people Jeff Adachi has abandoned,” Ballard said.
The cost of the court
Staffing and funding the Community Justice Center:
$1.3 million: Total staff budget this fiscal year
$800,000: Federal grant covering The City’s contribution to the center
- District Attorney’s Office staff: 2
- Department of Public Health staff: 3
- Health and Human Services staff: 1
- CJC administration: 1
- Probation staff: 3
- Sheriff’s Department staff: 2
Who uses the CJC?
- Clients engaged in services: 140
- Cases: 528
- Appearance rate of CJC clients: 55%
- Appearance rate at Hall of Justice: 25%
- Average number of days from police contact to court appearance at the CJC: 2
- Average number of days from police contact to court appearance at Hall of Justice: 45
Top three charges seen:
- Disorderly conduct/lodging
- Public nuisance
- Drug paraphernalia
Total referred to temporary shelter: 113
Overall case dismissal rate: 55%
What is treatment?
Treatment can include counseling for addiction and trauma, drug detox and comprehensive mental health care.
Who enters treatment?
- Clients mandated to treatment: 46%
- Clients voluntarily engaging in treatment: 30%
- Retention rate for clients mandated to undergo treatment: 98
- Retention rate for clients who voluntarily undergo treatment: 30
Source: Office of Collaborative Justice Programs