Judge Ron Albers, San Francisco Community Justice Center
Judge Ron Albers, San Francisco Community Justice Center
The San Francisco Community Justice Center opened in March 2009, handling cases from the city’s Tenderloin, South of Market, and Civic Center neighborhoods. Although the project had the strong and enthusiastic backing of court leadership and Mayor Gavin Newsom, the project faced a number of hurdles, including opposition from some homeless advocates and even some members of the city’s Board of Supervisors. In May 2009, the Justice Center’s presiding judicial officer, Hon. Ron Albers, discussed the two-year planning process and the court’s first months of operation with Center for Court Innovation Director of Communications Robert V. Wolf.
The court met with resistance from homeless advocates, the Board of Supervisors and even the public. Was the task of launching the court more challenging than you’d expected?
There are a few things that San Franciscans are virtually unanimous about: one, that there is a high concentration of people out on the streets of the neighborhoods the Justice Center is serving who need help; two, that some of these folks are committing crimes, and some are being victimized themselves, so in both cases the justice system becomes involved; and three, that current approaches are not solving these problems as quickly as everyone would like.
My expectation going in was that we could have garnered a broad range of support from residents, criminal justice partners, and the city in general. Politically and philosophically the Justice Center is an easy match for San Francisco. In a baseline survey conducted by our Department of Public Health in the neighborhoods we serve, 60% were "positive" or 'very positive" about the Community Justice Center. Unfortunately, we opened at a time when San Francisco, and the nation, faced huge financial shortfalls.
We knew that funding would be a huge challenge, but we faced many unanticipated structural barriers to receiving our criminal cases at the Justice Center. These structural issues continue to challenge us as we move forward.
Fortunately, we’ve received a warm reception from individuals who have come to the court. People are thanking us for taking care of their legal problem two short days after their contact with police. We can facilitate immediate community service, or provide shelter or food stamps and a range of services. And the treatment providers, who traditionally who have not been part of the court system, have stepped up tremendously to address social service needs and participate in the collaborative court process. And on the side of accountability, people have expressed appreciation for resolving their legal issue on the spot.
Recognizing that San Francisco often does things differently, are there any conscious departures you’ve made from other community court projects?
We’re not focused exclusively on low-level offending. We want to target our limited resources to those who are most at risk of re-offending and who have the greatest impact on public safety. That means we’re dealing with a much broader array of cases than many other community justice centers and community courts. The target caseload represents approximately 25 percent of all criminal arrests for the city of San Francisco, and that, simply stated, is a huge undertaking for one judicial officer.
First off, we have low-level cases that customarily receive pre-trial diversion alternatives. These are the kinds of cases that most of the community courts nationally handle. For these offenses, we do immediate community service assignments, conduct a personal needs assessment, and refer the person to mental health, substance abuse or job training services. When the person completes the assignment, the case is dismissed and removed from their formal arrest record.
Some cases involve citations issued for illegal lodging or blocking the sidewalk or possession of a crack pipe. We don’t prosecute those kinds of cases in San Francisco, so when people show up, we offer them services. That’s basically our strategy for low-level cases: to make services available and encourage participants to engage voluntarily. As we move forward, we will look for ways to “incentivize” attendance in court and engagement in services. We are forming partnerships with local advocacy groups and neighboring law schools to help people complete applications for SSI and other government benefits, to reunite with families, and eliminate pending legal problems in other states.
Second, we have more serious offenders who aren’t entitled to pre-trial diversion. Many of them have long criminal histories, and many of them are in violation of their probation. County jail was the traditional answer, but I’m using community service or offering social services, like drug counseling, mental health services, coupled with real monitoring to make sure they’re in compliance. I tell them, “I’ll give you a break on the county jail time, but I’ll monitor you to make sure you’re compliant. If you’re having a problem with something, we’ll address it before it turns into a motion to revoke your probation. Together we will work to help you successfully complete your probation obligations, and avoid prison or jail.”
Third, we have people who have more serious felonies who would normally face state prison. We’re placing them on probation, linking them to services, rigorously monitoring them, and trying to eliminate barriers to success. Our philosophy is that if you have a person at high-risk to public safety who is released in the community, you must monitor their obligations and behavior.
Because our justice center deals with a large number of high-risk offenders, we have three probation officers on site. Two deal with only homeless probationers, and one works with just high-risk probationers. Our strategy is to bring them in voluntarily and help them before they are in violation of probation terms. We offer them services, medical care, housing. We’re having them come back as frequently as once a week to make sure they’re compliant with the terms of their probation.
We’ve also had a large number of homeless people coming in voluntarily to get shelter or government benefits.
The probationers appear before you once a month?
Yes, or more frequently, if appropriate. Our model targets the high-risk offender, holds them accountable and keeps them on a schedule. We tell them that if they do what’s mandated, they’ll get a reward.
We shorten their probation period — which, in San Francisco, is typically three years—and even set aside convictions. We can also reduce certain felony offense to misdemeanors. These are tremendous incentives. Eliminating the conviction makes it easier for them to access education, job training, employment, and housing.
What are the biggest public-safety challenges the court faces and how does your community court model address them?
The needs assessment prepared by the Center for Court Innovation in 2008 and our own baseline assessment prior to opening clearly identify the community’s concerns: violence, drug-selling, as well as lower-level crimes which create a climate of fear in a neighborhood. A majority of those polled in the baseline survey thought it was unsafe to walk the streets at night.
We don’t address the most serious violence cases in my court. In this extreme situation, if someone committed a serious act of violence, the question is “How much time should they spend in state prison?” I can impose a state prison sentence when appropriate, but I do not have the capacity to conduct a jury trial for these offenses.
The drug selling is dissected in this way. First, there are the folks who are coming into the community to make money and don’t have a drug problem themselves. The community wants those people in jail and out of the Tenderloin, and we’re not dealing with those cases in the Community Justice Center. Then there are those who are addicts, or have serious mental health or physical problems and are selling drugs to survive—maybe selling their prescription drugs to buy food. My feeling is that the Community Justice Center is an appropriate way to deal with that kind of case, and I think the police and prosecutor agree that there is a lot to be gained by processing those cases here.
The community has also identified homelessness and poverty as huge issues. Even the homeless community identified homelessness as the major problem in this district. And there’s across-the-board agreement that our city needs to do better.
You said cases involving illegal lodging and blocking the sidewalk citations aren’t prosecuted in San Francisco. Instead you offer people services. How successful is the Justice Center in engaging people in services voluntary?
First off, since we opened, folks with felony charges are showing up 80 to 90 percent of the time—for us, that’s phenomenal. That’s better than the traditional attendance rate. And the engagement process with them is tremendous.
So far, we haven’t been able to improve low appearance rates for low-level citations. When we opened, we wondered whether homeless individuals who were cited for blocking the sidewalk would embrace alternatives to the streets.
We’re also testing whether directing folks to come to court two days after they receive a citation helps to improve attendance rates. In San Francisco, traditionally the person is directed to appear in court a month and a half later.
People issued these low-level citations are coming to court only 10 percent of the time, which is no better or worse than the traditional attendance rate. And even when people do show up, not all are receptive to our services, even an immediate shelter bed. A lot are very mentally ill, very drug addicted. A good number are trauma victims. It will be a longer process to build trust and relationships, but we’re not giving up. This is a longstanding problem in this area and it’s not surprising that solutions will be complicated.
Word is getting out to people with a crack pipe citation that you won’t be put in jail when you come to court—and people are here to help you.
Tell me about your community advisory board.
We’ve borrowed structures that we feel are the best of the Red Hook and Midtown models. Like the Midtown Community Court, we have a board made of criminal justice stakeholders, city officials, and treatment providers. Like the Red Hook Community Justice Center, we have town hall meetings, where we invite the public to discuss their concerns and receive updates about our work. And we run the board meetings and the town hall meetings parallel with each other.
What advice would give other jurisdictions that are interested in starting a community court?
People interested in this philosophy need to see for themselves some of the greatest examples of community court model, specifically Red Hook and Midtown. Investigate the model, look at the theory, look at the research on the impacts it can have on public safety and addressing recidivism and then create a model fitted to your neighborhood’s needs, resources, and politics.
Most courts start with a criminal justice focus, but what’s needed is to expand into non-criminal areas like tenant issues and addressing conditions of neighborhood disorder.
And for anybody who’s interested in a model that uses limited resources focused on high-risk offenders and serious public safety concerns, I encourage people to call us and check out what we’re undertaking.