CJC as a Microcosm of SF’s Criminal Justice and Social Service Systems

It is hard to believe that a month has gone by since I started working at the CJC. My decision to staff the court myself was a product of necessity, since I just don’t have the staffing for this court. The Mayor’s office had originally promised to fund the court with two public defenders, and when the court opened, they said they could not fund the court due to the budget deficit. Our staff now is down by eight and our felony and serious case load is still steadily rising.

Because of the recession, there are more people who cannot afford an attorney. Who can afford to pay an attorney $250-$500 an hour? I know an attorney who handles white collar-type criminal defense. He is a very good attorney and he charges $700 an hour. I was thinking that there is no way that I could afford to hire him. That’s why most people, even middle-class folks can no longer afford to hire a lawyer.

This has translated into more clients and cases. We do not control the number of cases that are filed or the number of clients we represent. When a person is in need of an attorney, the Public Defender is assigned to the case, period. That’s the reason I am staffing the CJC. This is a court, and there are people charged with crimes who can’t afford lawyers, so we need to be here.

The only exception to not being able to say no is when we are overloaded with cases. And we are already past that point. When the Mayor and Supervisors’ Budget Committee did not approve my request to fill vacant positions, I had to begin turning down cases because I didn’t have the staff available to properly and competently represent clients. The American Bar Association sets forth the standard number of cases lawyers should be handling, and we are operating at about 60% past the workload attorneys should be handling.

Because I am staffing the CJC, I have to split my day between my job as Public Defender and as an attorney for the CJC. My routine now is that I start my day at about 6:00am, get into the office at 8:00 am to take care of a few matters, and then head over to the CJC, which is located at 575 Polk Street. I usually finish up at the court’s morning matters by 11:00am, and then I head back to my office for meetings. Then I go back to the CJC by 1:00pm, handle the afternoon calendar, and then return to the office by 3:00pm and try to finish the day by 6:30 or 7:00pm. Because of the CJC, I now do much of the paperwork that comes with the job as Public Defender at night, including writing this update.

This week has been somewhat disappointing. The CJC is supposed to be a “problem solving court” but so far, there hasn’t been enough coordination of the various agencies’ efforts to make a difference in the lives of most people assigned to the court, in my opinion. There’s a huge difference between how the criminal justice system and the social services systems operate. The criminal justice system is very rigid and has a cookie cutter approach to resolving cases. Prosecutors often try to impose consistent punishments for the same crimes. While this sounds “fair,” it actually isn’t, because everyone person’s situation is different.

The social service system, I am learning, is supposed to treat every person on an individual basis, identifying and treating their particular needs. For example, not everyone needs housing or mental health treatment.

From what I’ve experienced in the last month, the CJC is like a microcosm for what is wrong with our city services. We have many of the agencies responsible for healing society’s ills at the table. Yet because of the limitations of the systems we operate in, we are often unable to really address the root of the problems we are trying to solve and provide the support that people need. A person who needs help qualifying for social security because of their mental or physical disability has to fill out reams of paperwork and wait months before being able to obtain a check. Housing, for the most part, is shelter bed housing that expires every seven days, and there are long waiting lists for semi-permanent housing. And the criminal justice system often erects the obstacles to many of the barriers we need people to overcome to stay crime and arrest-free.

The criminal justice system also suffers from institutional inefficiencies. Police officers continue to cite people for possession of small quantities of marijuana, even though the city has a clear policy which states that law enforcement should not enforce laws prohibiting marijuana possession. Every day, we have 2 or 3 cases on calendar where the only charge is possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. We even had a person in court this week who was arrested despite presenting a medical marijuana card to the police officer. The officer nonetheless took her pot and money away. This poor woman will now send the next month or so trying to get back the $500 they took, which was all of her savings. No one bothers to find out why the police officer did this, or to make sure it doesn’t happen again. She called me today because the police refused to return her money. This means I have to file a return of property motion, which has to be heard in front of a judge, just to get $500. This will probably cost $1000 in court time, not to mention my time.

Case-in-point: In my last posting, I mentioned a man, who I’ll call Bill, who was arrested last year for selling $10 of prescription medication to a police officer. Bill’s case was brought over to the CJC from the Hall of Justice to see if we could produce a better outcome for Bill and for the community. Bill has some serious health problems, and needed housing. The social workers at the CJC found Bill housing in a shelter immediately, and began working with Bill to address his health problems, including getting him on the right prescription medication so he didn’t need to buy it on the street. He also needed to get his social security benefits worked out. After several weeks, Bill was stabilized, off drugs and living in a shelter bed.

In addition to the help, Bill has a great social worker from Pretrial Diversion’s Homeless Release Project, which supervises homeless people who are released from jail. Although I don’t usually mention names in my updates, I’ll make an exception here for Ali Riker because she deserves recognition. She is in charge of the program, but maintains a caseload of 30 clients, who she zealously assists in every way, including accompanying her clients to court when necessary. Ali already had a good relationship with Bill, and she worked with the social workers at CJC to provide Bill with the support he needed.

Bill had one thing that a lot of people don’t: he has a plan. He has two elderly parents out-of-state, and had decided it was time to go home to care for them. Bill had lived with them until 2002, when he came to San Francisco for medical treatment after suffering a work-related incident. Bill had worked as a machinist his entire life and had climbed up the ladder at his workplace until he shattered his hip. He originally came to San Francisco because he had heard the best doctors were here, but was unable to obtain the treatment he needed once here. He fell into homelessness and then drugs. He had been arrested and convicted of a drug offense 4 years ago, and then was arrested for the case he has now.

The CJC judge suggested that Bill continue to participate in the CJC services for 4 months, and that he then be allowed to return home. If it were shown that he was out-of-state, the case would be dismissed. Bill’s social worker was even able to arrange for a bus ticket for him to return home. But the prosecutor opposed the judge’s solution and instead wanted Bill to plead guilty to a felony possession charge and be placed on supervised probation in San Francisco, which would require that Bill stay in San Francisco for three years. This is often the case because the prosecutor’s office wants a conviction, not a dismissal. Now while it’s true that Bill could try and have his probation transferred to the state where his parents live, but this process takes months and is not guaranteed. So what’s the result? Because there’s no agreement, Bill’s situation is in limbo, and he’s really no better off at the CJC then he would have been in the regular court system. So Bill will remain in San Francisco, where he really doesn’t want to be. And in a few weeks, his shelter bed will expire and he’ll be homeless, starting the cycle that got him into the criminal justice system all over again. Hm, what’s wrong with this picture?

During my lunch break, I stopped by the Sephora store on Powell Street. As I mentioned a few postings ago, a lion’s share of the cases at the CJC involves shop lifting from Sephora and I wondered why so many cases came from there. I met the manager of the store, who was a very pleasant young woman named Lauren. She explained that because Sephora sold perfume and other beauty supply products, the items they sold were easy to take and sell. She also said they have a very aggressive policy of arresting shoplifters. Without revealing any trade secrets, they use undercover officers who are trained to identify people who are suspected of stealing items from the store. They even keep photos of people who have been arrested in the area for shoplifting. And they prosecute everyone.

Interestingly, the store doesn’t have any signage or hint that they are prepared to pounce on any shop lifters at a moment’s notice. Sephora’s corporate policy is to welcome their customers, and they don’t post scary security guards at the front or have a sign that warns people not to steal.

I also spoke with one of the “undercover” shoppers and she told me that they arrest about four people a day. I talked to them both a bit about what the CJC does, and that I would pass on the information about their policies. So the morale of this story: “DON’T SHOPLIFT FROM SEPHORA’S!” You heard it first here.

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