By Jeff Adachi
In the two months since it was created, San Francisco’s chronic inebriate court has jailed seven people. Two of them were innocent. How is this possible? Ask Ray Brown.
At 55, Brown, a lifelong drinker, decided to change his life and seek treatment. Brown voluntarily checked himself into a detoxification center for 21 days, and made arrangements to be referred to a long-term treatment facility.
The day before his appointment, Brown was arrested and jailed as a “chronic inebriate,” despite being neither drunk nor homeless. He lost his opportunity to begin his treatment.
A second man was recovering after open heart surgery. He hadn’t had a drink in over three months and was on the road to sobriety under his physician’s care. But he was arrested, labeled a chronic inebriate and thrown into jail.
The program works like this: a person with more than 30 infractions is arrested and sentenced to 150 days in jail for contempt of court. No assessment is done as to whether the person is a chronic inebriate, or even already in treatment. There is no requirement that the person be intoxicated at the time of arrest. This court is illegal. The U.S. Constitution provides that a person accused of a crime is entitled to a jury trial. The chronic inebriate court attempts to do an end run around this right by holding people in civil contempt instead of filing criminal charges, such as drunk in public or disorderly conduct. As a result, people are being jailed for up to 150 days without a trial. It is fundamentally wrong to jail people simply because politicians believe this is a convenient way to treat the addiction problem.
The leadership of the San Francisco Superior Court and the city’s homeless coordinator, Bevan Dufty, ignored these constitutional problems when they designed the court. Instead of collaborating with all agencies as required, they acted without any input from my office.
I filed an appeal and communicated my concerns to the court and Mayor Ed Lee. Last month, the state Court of Appeal ordered the Superior Court to justify its actions.
San Francisco should learn from San Diego’s serial inebriate program, which has been heralded as a national model. In San Diego, people taken into custody are charged with a crime and have the right to a jury trial.
As the San Francisco public defender, I have spent more than a decade fighting for quality treatment for those addicted to alcohol and drugs. My office has led the charge in implementing successful problem-solving courts, including the Drug Court, the Behavioral Health Court and the Domestic Violence Court. But it is also my duty to challenge the government when it oversteps its bounds. This is not about petty politics, as Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius opined, but about ensuring that innocent people are not wrongfully jailed.
Jeff Adachi is the San Francisco public defender.