Sunday, August 30, 2009

Community Justice Center Picks Up

We now take a break from the State's budget woes - though not entirely, as you'll see - to report on the news at the San Francisco Community Justice Center.

A quick bit of background: as some frequent readers may recall, the Community Justice Center was formed to address misdemeanors and non-violent felonies committed in the Tenderloin area. Its beginnings were difficult, with politically-charged budget struggles and a high percentage of non-appearances; it later received some publicity due to the personal appearance of the SF Public Defender, who was trying to make a point about budget difficulties.

Recently, the court has been getting some media attention. The Examiner reported on the Public Defender's Office's objections to the court, which included, as it turns out, the argument that many of the services it offers duplicate services available elsewhere.

“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.

At the Chron, C.V. Nevius, whose previous pieces on the subject were quite supportive of the court, offers sharp criticism of Adachi's objection, arguing against his disappearance from the scene precisely when the court is starting to show promise.

It took five months, but the CJC is finally making progress.

Now where is Jeff Adachi? The public defender complained that defendants at the Tenderloin court never showed, and that the court was a waste of time and resources. But now that it is seeing results, Adachi's office is AWOL.

"If I had the staff, I would definitely staff it," Adachi said. "Certainly these are cases our office would handle if they were filed in the Hall of Justice, but we barely have enough staff to cover the Hall."

Look, either you're the public defender or you're not. Your mandate is to fulfill every citizen's right to legal representation - not every defendant whose case is heard in the building where your offices are located.

Frankly, exasperation is building.

"What are our over 400 clients supposed to do?" asked CJC coordinator Tomiquia Moss. "At what point do the numbers become important enough to be worth a lawyer's time?"

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