By Benjamin Wachs
Here’s my message to the dozens of people who lined up to speak for three minutes each at yesterday’s three hour long hearing about the Mayor’s proposed Community Justice Center:
Y’all wasted your time. I don’t care which side of the issue you’re on.
Because you guys wanted to talk about social justice; you wanted to talk about what’s wrong with the prison system; you wanted to talk about how it isn’t a crime to be homeless; you wanted to talk (bizarrely) about the need for health care reform. And you did.
But the hearing wasn’t really about any of those things.
Sure it LOOKED like it would be about those things: after all, the proposed Community Justice Center would be about giving people in the Tenderloin who commit non-violent crimes a way to avoid jail by connecting to social services. So sure, you’d think social-justice-n-stuff would be relevant.
But that’s what the PROGRAM was about – not what the HEARING was about. Oh no.
The hearing was about Gavin Newsom not talking to the Board of Supervisors – and how, once again, if he doesn’t open his mouth he gets his teeth knocked out.
Gavin Newsom proposed the CJC – which will cost some $500,000 for space and another $1.7 - $2.5 million annually to run (depending on who you believe) – without ever consulting the Board of Supervisors. He designed it without them, publicized it without them, and tried to push it through in a budget year when all of them are seeing funding for their personal priorities cut.
No one acknowledged this directly: but members of the Board addressed it obliquely over and over and over again before they sent the CJC proposal back to the budget committee, where it will languish for as long as they say.
Their message back to him: We’re not going to spend millions on something that has “Fuck you, Supervisors” written all over it.
So people who lined up to make impassioned appeals to social justice, thanks for playing “democracy,” and better luck next time. I’m sure you’ll find someplace else in San Francisco to complain about the prison system.
For those of you who want a complete play-by-play of what the hearing was really about, along with juicy details, keep reading.
The hearing opened with Gerardo Sandoval ducking for cover. He asked to excuse himself from this vote because he’s running for Judge and therefore … um … wait, what’s he saying? That he can’t be seen to advocate for or against something which a whole bunch of other city judges have already taken a position on?
Is that his rationale? Because there’s a hole in it. See if you can figure out what.
Aren’t judges SUPPOSED to have opinions about the criminal justice system?
What Sandoval really wanted was not to be seen voting it down – which he really wants to do because he’s mad at the Mayor – without pissing off the legal establishment that’s pushing for the CJC, which he really doesn’t want to do in an election year.
This is absurd and even cowardly, but the City Attorney gave him a note and so, citing an “abundance of caution,” Sandoval gets excused from the grown-up table.
Now Bevan Dufty, the point man pushing for the CJC, comes forward to state his case.
“I believe that this is a measure that comes from the courts, and from the judges themselves,” he says. “A lot of labels have been attacked to this initiative … is it the mayor’s initiative? Is it trying to affect quality of life? What is quality of life? … but what we have before us is an opportunity to reinvent entry to the justice system in San Francisco, and to recognize that people who are non-violent offenders who come into contact with the criminal justice system would benefit more from a therapeutic model,” that connects them to housing, job opportunities, and social services.
“We have the opportunity with the criminal justice center to let the judge’s lead us.” For the first time in a generation, “the courts are listening to what the public wants” and will use it to fix a system that is terribly broken for most people going through it. The CJC could “provide meaningful tools to enable people to change the direction of their lives.”
What can I say but wow. It’s a really convincing speech. For a moment, I’m totally on his side.
To support his arguments, Dufty calls up Superior Court Commissioner Ron Albers. This is a mistake. All the air deflates from the room as soon as Albers starts to speak.
Dufty was passionate, engaged, thinking about the big picture … but Albers speaks sloooooowly and deliberatively, saying things like “this process is a natural extension of the juvenile court justice model.” We KNOW that! This isn’t the first time anyone’s talking about it – you’re trying to convince 11 mostly hostile people to vote for it! You don’t do that by giving them “Community Justice Center 101!”
Albers also has a graphic that makes the CJC look like a jellyfish.
I’m going to go get something to drink. I doubt I’ll be missing anything.
* * *
I’m back, and Albers is still there. Soooooooo sleepy …..
* * *
Finally Albers finishes and Superior Court Justice Harold Kahn picks the pace back up.
“We have a broken, regressive, criminal justice system. This criminal justice has over 60% African Americans incarcerated in a city of just about 7% African American,” he says. People cycling through the system have educational issues, drug issues, “they don’t know where to turn, and what do we do?” We throw them in jail, and then when they come back … as they inevitably do … we throw them in jail for longer, and longer, until eventually to go to the state pen and “learn to be real criminals.”
This is not progressive! Tell it brother!
“The data over the last 20 years is irrefutable – (the CJC model) works. I’ve seen it with my own eyes over and over and over again. It saves lives, it save people from going down the wrong track, it reunites families.” It slices! It dices! It leaves no carbon footprint!
Big applause after he speaks. He was energizing. This is a hearing worth hearing again!
Sadly, he is followed by Judge David Ballati, who is even worse than Albers.
You KNOW this is going to be a waste of everybody’s time when Ballati starts his remarks by giving the CJC’s proposed address.
* * *
The score so far: Dufty was on the right track (remember how he emphasized that while the Mayor’s role had been a controversy, this was really about the judiciary leading us?); but everything else has just been a waste of time. Talking about how the program works is pointless if the problem the Supes have isn’t really about the program per see. If Aaron Peskin or Ross Mirkarimi had proposed it there wouldn’t be an argument. What the Supes really want to hear is that they’re not going to be spending big money in a tight budget year on a giant mayoral “up yours,” and that they won’t be left out in the cold as it moves forward. Before they ever get to the merits of the argument, they have to settle that point.
Indeed, after Judge Ballati finishes Chris Daly goes on the attack. And what does he lead with? This question to the assembled jurors: “Supervisor Dufty represented this as a program put forward by the judiciary. When did you get involved?”
Finally Judge Kahn understands what’s going on. “It’s a citywide proposal, and will be run by the courts,” he responds.
Good answer, but Daly wants more. “You’re saying this is your proposal but that wasn’t my experience in how this was presented politically or in last year’s budget cycle.”
Judge Kahn is no fool, and throws the Mayor under a bus. “I can not help it if the mayor’s office uses their free speech rights to publicize things that in many cases may have been inaccurate,” he says. “But the only person who will be sitting on the bench is a judge.” He also apologizes for any attacks that may have been made against Daly personally – which he says neither he nor the program had anything to do with.
Daly – also no fool – knows this is as good an answer as he can get. Gavin Newsom under a bus? Fine with him. He proceeds to his next point; the one that, now that the courts have apologized for the mayor, everybody’s going to talk about instead:
Why are we paying lots of money to support a justice center that will send people to social services that we’re cutting because we don’t have any money? Huh?
* * *
This refrain is taken up by almost all the Supervisors at some point during this hearing, and since they’re all making a variation of the same point, I’m going to skip most of it. Bottom line: judges say “The CJC will be really good at referring the right people to services” and then a bunch of Supes say “Yeah, but there won’t be any services left!” over and over again.
The next really interesting point, one that is critical later, comes when Ross Mirkarimi says he wants to use this public hearing as an opportunity to get answers to “outstanding questions and fine print that haven’t been clarified.”
Oh Ross! Always trying to use government hearings to learn stuff!
Exactly what crimes, Mirkarimi asks, will the CJC handle? Most of the publicity surrounding the CJC said it would refer homeless people and addicts to treatment. So, Mirkarimi asks, will it? Will the CJC address people who are homeless, or who are arrested for extreme inebriation or defecating in a public place?
Judge Kahn’s answer is illuminating. No.
“Not a one of those, if they are crimes, would be covered. Not a one.”
That’s because being homeless isn’t actually a crime, and public drunkenness and defecation are “infractions.” The CJC will not handle “infractions.” They will handle misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.
This is news to a lot of people, including me. From the very beginning, Newsom’s office has been promoting the CJC as a way to address homelessness and public disorder. Instead, Judge Kahn emphasizes (and a quick look at the Controller’s report on the CJC confirms) the areas the CJC would cover are drug crimes, commercial burglaries, prostitution, graffiti, and petty thefts.
SPOILER: if you paid attention to what the judge just said, you’re more educated about the CJC than nearly 100% of people actually sitting in the audience waiting to speak.
* * *
Another curious fact comes to light when Public Defender Jeff Adachi testifies. It seems that the Public Defender’s office ran a small scale pilot program of the CJC. The results? 70 – 80% of defendants never showed up.
* * *
It’s nearly time for public comment … for the hordes of activists and concerned citizens who have sat through all this on uncomfortable benches to have their say … and Bevan Dufty makes one more brave attempt to salvage the program.
Dufty promises that he won’t vote for a budget that doesn’t include support for the Tenderloin Health Clinic and other social service priorities. Messasge to the Supervisors: yes, the Mayor’s fucked things up, but we can fix it. “I will acknowledge that the way this started was not the right way,” Dufty says. But if we vote for this, the courts will be in charge, not Newsom.
* * *
Public comment starts off on a surprisingly even keel. Church representatives say the CJC is needed to help the helpless; activists say they need this program because it offers people hope. Other activists say look – the stick doesn’t work with service resistant people. You need to use this program as a carrot.
Next … sigh … many activists come up to say that this court will be criminalizing people for being homeless and so should be opposed. Don’t criminalize homelessness!
Doesn’t anyone listen? Ever?
* * *
An editor at Poor Magazine – which is extremely well represented in the crowd – also objects to the program because it’s a “New York Model.”
Oh no! Quick, seal the doors!
Another speaker defends the program, though, saying that even though it WAS started in New York, this program is “uniquely San Francisco,” and therefore okay.
What is it with these identity issues? Would we really turn down a program that works just because it was designed in New York? God help us if the cure for AIDS is developed in Indianapolis.
* * *
Note to the next speaker: if you’re going to address a supervisor, please make sure you know how to pronounce his name. “Mer-ka-Re-Me.” NOT “Me –kerry-me”
* * *
A fair number of speakers just decry the nature of the criminal justice system generally. Well, okay, if that’s how they want to spend their time. Do you know it’s not fair to poor people?
* * *
Just to be clear, we’re now two hours into this hearing. There is no God.
* * *
How did we get to talking about the need for universal health care? Oh yeah … this is a San Francisco public hearing. About anything. It’s bound to come up.
* * *
Public comment is OVER! At last! Free! Free! Now vote you magnificent bastards, vote and let us go home!
* * *
Tom Ammiano notes wryly that even if the Supes pass the CJC today, the fight won’t be over: There will still be ways of blocking and sabotaging it. He manages not to look at Chris Daly while he says this. The man’s a gifted actor.
Mirkarimi and Aaron Peskin both say that if this measure weren’t standing on its own … if it were part of a comprehensive approach to social services and criminal justice, something that the MAYOR COULD PLAN WITH US INSTEAD OF ACTING LIKE WE’RE HIS LEPEROUS INBREAD COUSINS FROM HIS ABUSIVE FATHER’S SECOND MARRIAGE this proposal probably could be moved forward.
They propose to send it back to the Budget Committee where … if more money can be found for social services … they could see voting for it in the future.
Dufty, nobody’s martyr, sees where this is going and says that’s fine with him. It’s a gracious gesture that actually lets him salvage some victory from the jaws of defeat: He may be losing, but he’s sending a clear message to both the Supervisors (this is a program you must pay attention to) and the Mayor (you can’t win this one without playing nice).
They vote. The motion to send it back to committee indefinitely passes. The meeting goes on to other business. I’m getting on with my life.