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Mayor, judge clash over enforcement of quality-of-life citations

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A man sleeps on a couch along Myrtle Street in San Francisco, Calif. Tuesday, March 29, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Mayor Ed Lee is at odds with the top judge in San Francisco Superior Court over whether homeless people and others who commit so-called “quality-of-life” offenses should be let off the hook after failing to appear in court.

While discussing solutions to homelessness for adults with histories of drug abuse or mental illness Friday with reporters, the mayor said he would order San Francisco Superior Court judges to enforce quality-of-life citations.

“We need to have the court system involved with us,” Lee said. “Police, public works, human services can’t do this part alone. I’m going to require the courts not to summarily dismiss citations.”

In October, the courts dismissed thousands of warrants for people who failed to appear in court on citations for peeing in public or sleeping in the street, for instance.

“We need to surround individuals we know have problems and we need to circle them with a disciplined compassion,” Lee said.

The clash comes at a time when San Francisco is juggling multiple efforts to address homelessness with less money than it anticipated after voters rejected a sales tax hike in November. In his three-year budget plan released Thursday, the mayor plans to fund about half of what the sales tax would have funded in additional homeless services.

The mayor’s comments Friday are a response to an Oct. 18 order from Judge Christopher Hite. The order dismissed more than 65,000 warrants related to quality-of-life offenses over the last four years. All of the infractions were punishable with fines — not jail time.

The mayor does not have the authority to reverse the order, but can apply political pressure on the court system.

The mayor had just walked out of a news conference where he and tech-industry titan Marc Benioff announced a $30 million initiative to end family homelessness when he made his comments. His statements drew ire from Presiding Judge John Stewart, who criticized Lee for failing to understand the court system.

The courts also stopped issuing warrants for quality-of-life offenses in October because they were “clogging up our court system,” Stewart said.

“Sixty-six thousand warrants are just worthless,” Stewart said. “If somebody thinks that’s the solution to the homeless problem … they’re just not making sense.”

According to Stewart, the warrants are worthless because the Police Department does not have the resources to arrest individuals for quality-of-life offenses. When police do arrest someone for sleeping on the street, for example, and bring them to County Jail, the Sheriff’s Department refuses to book them because it would lead to jail overcrowding.

“The Sheriff’s Department doesn’t have the time, or money, or inclination,” Stewart said.

Each year, the courts would issue about 15,000 warrants for those who failed to appear for quality-of-life offenses, according to Stewart.

“A large number of citations is indicative of a need for help and when those citations are thrown out, we are throwing away a chance to help,” Deirdre Hussey, the mayor’s spokesperson, said in an email.

A Budget Analyst report from June showed that San Francisco spends at least $20.6 million a year to enforce quality-of-life offenses, which hasn’t reduced the number of people living on the streets.

The decision to stop issuing such warrants comes amid a climate of reform for the criminal justice system in California.

Proposition 47, for instance, reduced certain drug-related felonies to misdemeanors after passing in 2014 and alleviated jail overpopulation in the state.

The San Francisco Superior Court is critical of locking people up for quality-of-life offenses because it only escalates poverty.

“You’re trying to impose a fine on someone that doesn’t have any money,” Stewart said. “That’s just a debtors prison. That went out in the 19th century.”

Dismissing the warrants has a marginal effect on the Public Defender’s Office and District Attorney’s Office because quality-of-life citations appear in Traffic Court — where public defenders and prosecutors are hardly present.

The cases are similar to receiving a traffic ticket and last year, the Superior Court also stopped issuing and dismissed warrants for motor vehicle offenses.

In his comments, the mayor also suggested the courts were falling short in being part of the solution to homelessness. “No entity, whether it’s the judges, the court system, police or human services can abandon their role in this effort,” he said.

But Stewart questioned how the court system could help combat homelessness for those who commit quality-of-life offenses.

“We’re talking about people who don’t appear before us,” Stewart said. “So how are we supposed to solve that?”

The court system does have specialized courts — like Drug Court — that could help homeless people. But those courts only see cases more serious than infractions.

The presiding judge said he has asked the mayor to meet with him to clarify the decision to stop enforcing quality-of-life citations.

In the meantime, Lee is scheduled to meet with other mayors from across the West Coast today and Tuesday to discuss and share solutions to homelessness.

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