San Francisco chief calls justice system too lenient

By Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writer
The San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco's "lenient criminal justice system" sends away too few criminals to state prison and is to blame for the bulk of the city's crime problems, creating revolving-door justice in which repeat offenders are returned to the streets to commit new offenses, a top police official says.

Deputy Chief Morris Tabak, speaking Wednesday night before the Police Commission about the state of crime in the city in 2006, said thugs and drug dealers traveling into the city and the lack of family structure and poverty are also important factors in neighborhoods where crime is most prevalent.

But he suggested it was a history of lenience in prosecution as well as in bail and sentencing decisions by San Francisco judges that's largely responsible for police having to arrest and rearrest the same people over and over, frequently for offenses involving guns, drugs and violence.

"It is not about fixing blame, but about fixing the problem," Tabak said during the presentation.

District Attorney Kamala Harris issued a statement Thursday saying her prosecutors are working with police and are making progress, noting that the conviction rate reached a decade high since she took office three years ago and that more offenders are being sent to state prison on her watch.

Nonetheless, Tabak said criminal justice practices need to change to make a difference in crime, and he highlighted Santa Clara as an example of a county that has taken crime and punishment seriously.

He cited state data showing San Francisco is among the least successful counties in the state in locking up felony offenders.

The city sent 436 people to prison in 2005, the same number as Sonoma County, which has 300,000 fewer residents, and far below Ventura County, which is exactly the same population. Ventura County sent 723 people to prison that year. San Mateo County sent 785.

"A lenient and ineffective criminal justice system does not deter crime, it invites it," Tabak told the commission.

Roughly 4 of every 100 arrests result in prison terms in San Francisco, compared with other counties, including: 12.8 of 100 arrests in Alameda, 14.4 of 100 in Sacramento, 21 of 100 in San Mateo and Santa Clara, 26.6 of 100 in Fresno, 38.7 of 100 in Los Angeles and 41 of 100 in San Diego.

Tabak said police officers make arrests "time and time and time again," but that in many cases, offenders are freed to commit more crimes.

As an example, he cited the two-year history of a 25-year-old man who was arrested three times with weapons and drugs, each time released on bail. Last month, the man was arrested again, this time with two assault weapons, but has yet to be charged, Tabak said. He said none of the three earlier weapons cases, which started in October 2004, had been resolved.

"How many times do our officers have to go in harm's way, to arrest and rearrest these folks?" Tabak said.

Tabak concluded by suggesting that officers recently killed while on duty might have paid the price for San Francisco's lenience. "How many officers killed in the line of duty would still be patrolling the streets ... had the system been less lenient?" he said.

But the police commissioners who were Tabak's audience were skeptical and suggested that police could do more to combat crime, instead of laying blame elsewhere.

"I think that the issue of the criminal justice system failing the city and county of San Francisco is a very complicated issue," said Commissioner David Campos, but said he wanted to focus on what the commission and the Police Department could do to change things and "not really get into the issues that go beyond this jurisdiction of this commission."

Tabak defended the department's performance, noting that homicides were down in 2006 compared to 2005, including a nearly 50 percent drop in African American gang homicides. Killings overall dropped from 96 in 2005 to 85 last year.

Commissioner Petra DeJesus asked Tabak to be more specific about where he felt the blame should be placed.

"When you say there is a failure in the criminal justice system, and you say it is not the Police Department, who exactly are you referring to?"

"I think the criminal justice system is everybody," Tabak said, referring to prosecutors, the courts and probation officials. "It's the entire system."

"Everyone can do better," he said. "We look forward to moving forward in solving some of these systemic problems."

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