New justice center finds home

A new court in San Francisco’s Tenderloin that is being created to handle low-level criminal behavior in the downtown area has found a home just two blocksfrom the steps of City Hall.

The City’s Criminal Justice Center — a special court that Mayor Gavin Newsom has said will direct offenders of such crimes as nonviolent drug use, theft, prostitution and aggressive panhandling to appropriate social services rather than jail or fines — will be housed at 575 and 555 Polk Street.

Modeled partially after New York City’s Midtown Community Court, which requires most defendants to perform community service or attend a group meeting within 24 hours of arraignment, the San Francisco’s new court will take cases from the Civic Center, Tenderloin, Union Square and South of Market neighborhoods.

One judge will handle the cases in an effort to build rapport and personal knowledge with defendants, according to the Mayor’s Office, and an advisory board and town hall meetings would bring residents and merchants into a partnership designed to restore the community.

“It’s about solving a problem as opposed to incarceration and release, incarceration and release,” Newsom told The Examiner.

The new court is a collaboration with the Superior Court, Police Department, District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender, Sheriff’s Office, Adult Probation Department, Human Services Agency and Department of Public Health, he said.

Results will be seen years down the road, not overnight, Newsom said, adding that after then-New York Mayor David Dinkins proposed Manhattan’s court, “It took years and years to reach the tipping point.”

Today, Newsom will submit a letter to the Board of Supervisors to release $500,000 in reserve funding for the center.

Newsom said he was “hopeful” that the Board of Supervisors would take those funds off reserve, the last major obstacle to the center becoming reality.

On Jan. 4 the program began with five cases a week in the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street. Construction on two holding cells is currently moving forward at 575 Polk St. The social services will be located on the second floor of 555 Polk, which will become available to The City in March.

The center is scheduled to be operational in July, according to the Mayor’s Office.

dsmith@examiner.com

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