Pity the poor soul who inherited the formidable mess left behind by Terence Hallinan, a politician posing as a prosecutor in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office who turned the administration of the law into a three-ring circus.
And that soul is Kamala Harris, who found an agency stuck in a technological time warp, underfunded and understaffed, and still reeling from the aftermath of her predecessor’s irresponsible attempt to bring down the leadership of the San Francisco Police Department.
In the three years since she took over, Harris has received much criticism for not righting the prosecutorial ship fast enough, certainly in this journalistic corner and elsewhere. She has been criticized by police officials for not doing more to go after violent offenders and by community activists for not doing more to grapple with quality-of-life crimes.
But as she gears up for re-election this year — so far unopposed — it’s worth noting some of the strides her office has made, despite some fairly eye-opening numbers that turned up in an audit of her office a few years back and showed just how much of a bureaucratic backwater the District Attorney’s Office had become. That is especially true now that Harris is trying to hire 17 more assistant district attorneys in this year’s budget to deal with quality-of-life offenses and street crimes — and it appears that some of the more ideologically driven members of the Board of Supervisors are trying to quash that request.
“This office was neglected and in some ways, very abused,” is the way Harris described the agency she took over in January 2004. “Most of the lawyers didn’t even have e-mail and they went to Costco to buy their phones because the existing ones were 25 years old. There was no tracking system for our cases.”
The controller’s audit also found that nearly one-third of all the attorneys’ time was taken up doing clerical work — photocopying and filing — because there was not enough support staff. Comparing the agency with two other district attorneys’ offices in Santa Clara and Alameda counties, which had similar caseloads, the audit found that San Francisco had 20 legal secretaries, while Alameda had 89 and Santa Clara 117.
Similarly, the study determined that all three jurisdictions had felony caseloads between 8,600 and 9,200 annually, yet San Francisco only had 110 attorneys compared with 160 for Alameda and 200 for Santa Clara. And of course the annual budget for the offices tracked accordingly, with San Francisco’s receiving $31 million, Alameda’s getting $48 million and Santa Clara pulling in $72 million.
“The truth of the matter is that the whole criminal justice system here is under-resourced,” Harris said. “And any improvement is going to involve more resources because it’s impractical to believe that we can fix what’s not working with will alone.”
That will go a long way to explain why so many repeat offenders fall through the cracks — the average misdemeanor crime caseload for the attorneys in Harris’ office is 300 annually — which alone should be reason enough for supervisors to grant the lion’s share of her funding request. But that’s assuming our city officials want to really tackle street crimes, which remains to be seen.
Harris can make a strong argument for more attorneys for a number of other reasons, since even with limited staffing her office has made advances on several fronts. She says that the conviction rate for felony gun crimes has risen from 43 percent under Hallinan to 90 percent now and that the number of felons sentenced to state prison has nearly doubled during her tenure. She also states that the conviction rate for felony cases that go to trial is now 82 percent, up from 62 percent in 2003.
Critics maintain that figure is misleading because so many felony cases are dropped or pleaded out and that far too many offenders are sifted off into diversion programs. But what’s clear is that in recent years the Police Department, the District Attorney’s Office and the Superior Court have not been funded at adequate levels.
What’s telling is that because of the widening holes in the criminal justice system, more and more criminals come to San Francisco to ply their trade. According to the San Francisco Police Department, nearly 30 percent of all felony crimes here are committed by people from outside The City.
It would be nice if officials could put politics outside the criminal justice arena, but that’s never going to happen in a town where a community court can be viewed as an attack on homelessness.
“Crimes are not going to go away if you ignore public safety agencies,” Harris said.
This is a case where ignorance is not bliss — and hardly just.
Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (415) 359-2663.