State law plagues Newsom's Tenderloin court

Mayor Gavin Newsom’s plan to create a special court in the Tenderloin to handle low-level offenses committed in that area faces several challenges, including funding, location and a state law that prevents using the new program to deal with infractions such as aggressive panhandling.

On Tuesday, Newsom, Public Defender Jeff Adachi and other city officials participated in a panel discussion on his Community Justice Center project held for San Francisco Chamber of Commerce members.

Before the meeting, Newsom told The Examiner that a recent decision by the Board of Supervisors to reduce funding for the Tenderloin court from $750,000 to $500,000 was not going to stall implementation of the program.

“Clearly it will slow down the process a little,” Newsom said. “You do a little less than you wanted to do, you look to see what money you can find elsewhere, you look privately. … We’ll just have to be even more creative.”

Newsom, along with District Attorney Kamala Harris, has promoted the Community Justice Center program as a way of dealing with low-level criminal behavior such as drug use, theft, prostitution, auto break-ins and other “quality of life” offenses. San Francisco’s program would be partially modeled after New York City’s Midtown Community Court, which requires most defendants to perform community service or attend a social service group within 24 hours of arraignment.

One of the obstacles San Francisco faces is that state law dictates that all infractions — crimes such as urinating in public, sleeping on the sidewalk or aggressive panhandling — can only carry a penalty fine. That means a police officer cannot take a person committing such a crime into custody and bring them before the Community Justice Center judge. Nor can The City use the threat ofincarceration to encourage those committing infractions to seek services.

“An infraction ticket goes to traffic court,” Julian Potter, Newsom’s deputy chief of staff, told Chamber members. “It’s something we can’t fix in the short term.”

Another upfront problem is finding an appropriate, permanent space in the Tenderloin neighborhood that has all the amenities of a court building.

The City is considering using a temporary space outside the Tenderloin — in the current Hall of Justice or within city-owned land at 150 Otis St. — to get the program jump-started, Potter said.

The City is conducting community meetings to get feedback on the Community Justice Center program, Potter said, and expects to have a draft plan by the end of the summer or early fall.

beslinger@examiner.com

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