Proposition L - Community Justice Center

Voter Guide
This measure appeared on the November 2008 San Francisco ballot.


What it does

Proposition L would amend the San Francisco Administrative Code to create an alternative to incarceration for defendants found guilty of committing crimes such as drug possession, prostitution and vandalism in the Tenderloin, South of Market, Civic Center and Union Square neighborhoods. If passed, the proposition would create the Community Justice Center as an alternative to the normal criminal process of the Superior Court of California. The CJC would be a collaboration between the Superior Court and the and the City and County of San Francisco.

The CJC would house a special court charged with reviewing misdemeanor and nonviolent felonies committed in the four target neighborhoods. The CJC is intended to serve defendants who otherwise would enter the criminal justice system. In lieu of incarceration, the CJC would seek to connect defendants with social services. The CJC would have a judge present to hear all cases, as well as a public defender and district attorney.

Under Prop. L, an individual charged with a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony in one of the four target neighborhoods would be sent to either the CJC or the Superior Court, at the discretion of the police. At the CJC, the judge would review the case and make a determination about whether the person should serve jail time in addition to receiving services. Central to the CJC is the provision of health and social services to individuals who appear before the court. Defendants whose cases were heard by the CJC would be directed to a nearby center where they would meet with a caseworker to discuss accessing services such as care for a mental illness, substance abuse treatment, assistance with housing and other programs as needed. The CJC would provide ongoing case management to individuals it sentences.

An individual found guilty of illegal activity could still be required to serve a criminal sentence and also could be required to complete community service activities.

In an effort to engage the neighborhoods encompassed by the court, the CJC would have a Community Advisory Board made up of community members from the four target neighborhoods and representatives from local agencies.

If passed, the measure would allocate $1.7 million from the City's General Fund, which will be expended on one-time start up costs — the construction of two holding cells and a lease for the social-services center — and the operation of the CJC for one year. In addition, the measure would allow the City to receive $983,000 in federal funds awarded to the Department of Public Health for the operation of the CJC. The court would be held in space provided by the Superior Court at 575 Polk St.

Why it is on the ballot

The CJC proposal in Proposition L was drafted to be placed on the ballot by the mayor when the Board of Supervisors voted against allocating funding for the CJC at budget hearings in June. Subsequently, the Board of Supervisors voted to authorize funding. The measure remained on the ballot despite already being funded in the City's 2008/2009 budget in order to prevent the Board of Supervisors in from eliminating the CJC's funding mid-year in 2009.

Community courts already operate in eight neighborhoods in San Francisco. Unlike the proposed CJC, community courts hear cases in which the accused individual likely would not be charged with a crime. In community courts, a panel of community residents, rather than a judge, hears cases, and defendants often are required to complete community service or pay a fine. The CJC, by contrast, has professional judges making determinations about the cases.

The CJC would be an addition to the San Francisco Superior Court's existing Collaborative Justice program. Currently, there are five other courts that offer alternatives to incarceration for specific defendant populations, such as individuals with mental-health issues, first-time adult offenders with substance abuse issues, and juveniles with mental health and/or substance abuse problems.

One of the courts in the Collaborative Justice program is the Behavioral Health Court. Created in 2002, BHC provides mental health services as an alternative to incarceration for defendants suffering from mental illness who are charged with a misdemeanor or a nonviolent felony. An evaluation of the BHC conducted by the University of California at San Francisco found that defendants participating in the BHC were 25 percent less likely to be charged with another crime after 18 months.

Following on the success of the BHC, the CJC has been proposed by the mayor in an effort to address the high crime rate in the Tenderloin, South of Market, Civic Center and Union Square neighborhoods. More than a quarter of all the crimes committed in San Francisco occur in these four neighborhoods. The CJC would differ from the other courts in the Collaborative Justice program in its focus on four distinct neighborhoods.

The CJC is modeled on two similar courts in New York City. A group of stakeholders from San Francisco traveled to New York in 2007 as part of a study trip led by the mayor and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. The City and County of San Francisco then contracted with the New York-based Center for Court Innovation to conduct a needs assessment for the CJC, and a report on its findings was released in early 2008.


Arguments in favor of Prop. L:

  • Incarceration for many nonviolent crimes often does little to rehabilitate minor offenders. Creating a system that provides alternatives to jail is far more humane.
  • By providing services to defendants, along with intensive case management, the substance abuse and mental health problems that plague many of the defendants could be addressed, reducing the likelihood they would commit further offenses.
  • The Community Justice Center could reduce costs in the long run since defendants might no longer be cycling through the criminal justice system. At a minimum, researchers suggest the CJC likely would have no net cost.
  • The CJC would provide services directly to individuals in need, rather than relying on individuals to refer themselves to services. Since participating in services would be offered as an alternative to incarceration, the CJC would provide defendants with an incentive to participate in such services.
  • This is a pilot program that is worth trying to determine its effectiveness.


Arguments against Prop. L:

  • This is a complex issue that already went through the budget process and ultimately was funded. There is no reason to keep this on the ballot other than to make a political statement.
  • The measure does not fund any additional mental health, substance abuse or housing services. Given that there is a shortage of residential substance abuse treatment slots, the benefit of the CJC in offering services in lieu of jail time would be ineffective if there are no services available to meet the needs of the defendants.
  • The design of the CJC leaves too much discretion to the police to decide whether to bring a defendant to the CJC or directly to the Superior Court. In this way, it is possible that the police would use stereotypes to decide who would get a hearing before the CJC or one in a regular court.
  • It appears that many "quality of life" crimes such as public defecation could not be heard by the CJC, since these are considered infractions, a category of crime considered less significant than misdemeanors, and thus are not serious enough to be considered by the CJC. As a result, the original goal of providing the communities served by the CJC with the means of addressing crimes that negatively affect the quality of life in their neighborhoods would not be entirely fulfilled.
  • We already have eight other community courts that have similar functions. Instead of creating a new court, we should instead strengthen or modify the existing ones.
  • Whether any form of criminal justice is a success or a failure is a complex question that is inappropriate to debate at the ballot. It would be far better to resolve this matter through careful work by professionals in the public health, legal and law enforcement fields..

SPUR’s analysis

The intent of the CJC would be to provide people found guilty of crimes resulting from mental health, substance abuse and lack of shelter with services, rather than incarcerating them. By providing these services, the CJC would seek to prevent individuals from cycling through the criminal justice system. The lack of funding for additional services raises the concern that the CJC would be unable to meet the needs of the defendants appearing before the court. Yet, in the absence of the CJC, defendants charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies would face incarceration, which often is ineffective in preventing the re-entry of defendants into the criminal justice system.

This measure would provide San Francisco with the opportunity to pilot test a new alternative to the current criminal justice system. Creating a parallel system through the implementation of the CJC is a way to achieve institutional change: The CJC would offer a competing model that could yield reform of the criminal justice system overall. If the pilot proved successful, the program could be expanded in the future.

If voters pass Prop. L, the CJC would be funded for only one year. Although it is unfortunate that this measure comes before the voters even though it already was funded in the City budget, the policy merits of the program are worth assuring the program a full year of operation. It would be easier to assess whether the CJC truly offers an effective means of reforming the criminal justice system in San Francisco it has been up and running for a year.

SPUR recommends a "Yes" vote on Prop. L.