New DA brings lofty goal to office he’s trying to keep

He opted for one high-profile job over another, but even though George Gascón altered his uniform, he did not change his colors.

In announcing a reorganization of his office Wednesday, San Francisco’s new district attorney showed that his willingness to shake up stagnant agencies is on par with his desire to take on new challenges.

And he has a big one on the horizon.

Not many people would give up a job as a popular police chief in a major American city to assume the duties of a new office in which he must seek his first election less than a year into the job. Yet when I met with Gascón a few days ago, he seemed perfectly content with his decision to walk away from his police chief duties to assume the role of The City’s top prosecutor.

He told me he thinks he could ultimately have a bigger impact in transforming the criminal justice system as district attorney, and that by “flattening out” the organization of the office to create three departmental tiers that report directly to him, that will be easier to accomplish.

But his biggest move — beyond running his first election campaign against at least one well-funded opponent — is still at least two months away. That is when he hopes to start the first in a series of community courts around The City, designed to tackle the misdemeanors and minor infractions that clog the courthouse to the tune of thousands of cases each year.

Gascón said he plans to assign prosecutors to district meeting halls, possibly even police stations, to expedite cases that can be resolved quickly through mediation, preferably no longer than two weeks after a complaint has been filed.

“We want to decriminalize a lot of the minor stuff so that people will have a quick resolution to their complaints,” he said. “The goal is to take some of the workload away from the regular criminal court.”

By avoiding the “traditional process” of dealing with smaller quality-of-life crimes that drag through the court for up to a year or more, Gascón said he could reduce the workload on his office’s staff by up to 25 percent.

“I really believe that this is going to be the way to handle lesser violations in the future, especially since we’re going to be facing a major realignment of finances at the state level,” he said. “This is a model that we can use to reduce the cost of the criminal justice system and keep people out of jail.

“There’s plenty of data available that shows it’s not the severity of punishment that deters people from committing crimes. What’s more effective is the certainty of facing consequences and the timeliness of the response.”

Of course, it is not really a model yet because as far as he and his staff have been able to determine, no other cities are using it.

He said the ballot battle over San Francisco’s new sit-lie ordinance designed to help police officers deal with thuggish, aggressive behavior on the streets showed him that city residents are calling for personal safety. By dealing with neighborhood crimes at their source, he said he will try to persuade community groups to become involved in safety issues, possibly even training nonlawyers to work as mediators.

Consider it an experiment — one Gascón hopes to bring to the Bayview district in 60 to 90 days, then add a similar setup in the Tenderloin before possibly going to the Mission district. Resistance in some quarters (likely the Public Defender’s Office) is inevitable, but anyone who can change the intransient management style of an agency with more than 2,000 people — like he did with the Police Department — deserves a shot.

That is the real power of incumbency. Some people running for public office have a chance to say this is what they will change. But those in power can show that they are actually changing government and can point to results.
Gascón is confident in his attempt to reform part of the court system, and at this point there is no reason to doubt him.

But running to keep his job? If he does it correctly, it should be an open-and-shut case.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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