San Francisco’s new probation chief, Karen Fletcher, sat down with The San Francisco Examiner recently to talk about her more than two decades in law enforcement and the nature of her work here compared to Santa Clara County, where she was the deputy probation chief before coming to The City. Fletcher replaced probation chief Wendy Still, who retired in 2014.
Q: How does San Francisco differ from Santa Clara County when it comes to your work?
A: It is much larger than San Francisco and has more law enforcement agencies to deal with; there were 13 police jurisdictions there. But the major difference is that San Francisco has far more resources and the closely knit nature of law enforcement, so as not to duplicate efforts.
Q: How do the caseloads compare?
A: Santa Clara has far more people on probation. We had about 18,000 cases in adult probation there. In The City, there are only about 4,000 in all. In Santa Clara, most people who went through the court system were released and then under probationary supervision. In The City, those on probation are really the high-risk people.
Q: Why is that?
A: The DA’s Office and the courts have a different philosophy when it comes to criminal justice, but San Francisco is also just a smaller county so there are fewer on probation here. Also, sentencing practices in The City have been ahead of much of the state when it comes to restorative justice. Fewer go to state prison from The City, for example.
Q: How does managing probation in San Francisco differ from doing so in Santa Clara?
A; In Santa Clara, we had a much larger department. In Santa Clara, there are about 900 staff — 350 in adult probation — compared to 155 total staff here. The smaller operation here gives me the ability to be much more hands on.
Q: Why come to San Francisco?
A: I was drawn to The City for its size and nature, as well as its philosophical approach to justice. But in Santa Clara, like San Francisco, we used evidence-based practices, which means we essentially collect data on people’s behavior in order to assess their outcomes. I want to be part of moving that along more here.
Q: While probation officers are technically law enforcement, how do they differ from police?
A: Police may make an arrest and never return to that address. Probation officers must return and build relationships. We might supervise someone for two to three years, so by nature we have a closer connection to them.
Q: Do you get frustrated doing this work when at times you are managing problems, like poverty and drug use, that society seems to have refused to solve?
A: We can’t build a factory that will give people jobs in a poor community, but we might be able to help someone get treated for drug addiction, which makes it hard for them to get out of the criminal justice system.
Q: Many people have argued that large numbers of people who are arrested in San Francisco are from elsewhere. At least when to comes to probation, how many under your supervision are San Francisco residents?
A: There is a statute in the penal code that requires us to send people back to their legal county of residence, even if they are arrested here. So the majority of people on probation here are from San Francisco.