For answer to homicide wave, look to revolving-door justice

The randomness of the violence in San Francisco this year has proved beyond vexing for the experts. A man gets behind the wheel of a car and starts mowing down pedestrians with casualindifference. Bullets fly in the Bayview district over the weekend as if the Wild West were very much alive, leaving five more people dead.

So here in our capital of finger-pointing, someone’s got to get the blame — the police, the mayor, the district attorney. What about the judges who let so many felons walk the streets? The real civil libertarians would talk about the nation’s social, economic and education system and the cyclic patterns that keep families in poverty and steer individuals toward crime.

And there’s always President Bush to kick around, cutting funding for more police officers and public housing grants, while driving up record deficits to pay for his war doctrine.

No one can say for sure what is really propelling the surges in violence that have claimed 62 lives in The City so far this year, but there is a common thread that should be at the root of any discussion. And that is that there are a lot more bad guys on the streets these days and they are armed to the teeth — and our local system of justice is failing to deal with it.

The truth is, far too many people in the city and county of San Francisco are getting a stay out of jail pass, and when they are out they’re engaging in a lot of unsavory activities that often make them murder targets. Before this last weekend’s bloodshed in the Bayview, there were 57 murders in San Francisco. Among the victims, 43 of them had piled up a total of 732 felony and 508 misdemeanor charges — everything from homicide, aggravated assault, narcotic sales and possession of assault weapons to burglary.

So while a lot of elected officials are blaming the Police Department for failing to halt the wave of violence, it’s clear that they’re making a lot of arrests and getting a lot of guns off the street — more than 1,200 alone last year. But the arrests don’t necessarily translate into incarceration, where prosecutors and judges appear to be all too forgiving. Andthat’s been a trend now for a decade.

“The criminal justice system has failed these victims,’’ Deputy Chief Morris Tabak told me.

The statistics bear him out. According to figures compiled by the state Department of Corrections, San Francisco sent 1,412 felons to state prison in 1995. Five years later that figure had dropped to 581, a decrease of more than 40 percent. Our bumbling hometown hero, Terence Hallinan, took over the District Attorney’s Office and the whole concept of crime fighting really took a tumble.

In 2001, after Hallinan had achieved the dubious honor of having the lowest conviction rate in the entire state of California, San Francisco sent 393 felons to prison. By 2003, that figure had dipped to 338 when Hallinan was more focused on sending the command staff of the Police Department to jail rather than those individuals we generally identify as criminals.

Since Kamala Harris has been district attorney that figure has improved slightly — 436 felons were sent to prison last year — but clearly the bent toward leniency and discharging cases “in the interest of justice’’ continues.

Comparisons with other counties don’t do San Francisco justice. Santa Barbara, hardly a conservative bastion, which has a population roughly half our size, sent nearly 900 convicted felons to prison last year. Even tiny Yolo County, with 180,000 residents, sent 512 people packing.

I’m not advocating a prison-first policy, and I believe in second and third chances, and sometimes beyond. But it’s obvious that there’s a correlation between the number of felons convicted of serious and violent crimes walking our streets and the escalating homicide rate that has City Hall in a tizzy.

So perhaps all those so-called progressive politicians — and the voters who elect them — who talk about social justice and the root causes of violence may want to consider the facts before they rev up the tired rhetoric.

It’s worth noting that when the ever-progressive Hallinan was trying to defend his record as the worst district attorney in the state, he blamed it partly on liberal judges and juries. Even if one were too believe that, it would just underscore that the criminal justice system — at least the one that exists in San Francisco — is failing to protect people by sending known criminals back on the streets.

And that’s where all those plea bargains and light probation sentences and outright dismissals become homicide statistics.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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