Feuding sinks quality-of-life court

Next time you are downtown and have an ugly encounter with aggressive street panhandlers, you can thank the seemingly endless feud between the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom. San Franciscans regularly cite panhandling and homelessness as The City’s No. 1 problem. Yet a proposed Tenderloin courtroom — based on a successful 20-year New York-Philadelphia model for reducing quality-of-life crimes such as disorderly conduct, drug use, panhandling and theft — was again deprived of startup funding Tuesday.

If such a proven, progressive program for a one-stop center combining criminal justice and social services originated from a majority supervisor, it would easily win fast-track approval. But since the court appeared on the mayor’s budget without sufficient consultation to please the board, a good idea strongly backed by city judges is being denied any test.

Although that rejection was aimed squarely at Newsom, the real losers are downtown’s working people, visitors and merchants — plus the homeless and street people who could have obtained better access to job training, substance-abuse and other counseling programs as an alternative to expensive in-and-out jail time.

Instead, the board declined to release $500,000 held in reserve for building two holding cells at the proposed Polk Street Community Justice Center. The supervisors opted to return the funding request to the board’s budget committee for consideration in overall budget deliberations. Of course, that committee already killed that expenditure once. So it seems unlikely that the court plan has as much chance without a lot of political horse-trading over social safety-net cuts — which might well turn out to be the supervisory strategy.

The annual cost to operate the court is estimated at up to $2.8 million. With a preliminary $6.5 billion budget for next fiscal year and a projected $338 million deficit to balance, opposing supervisors argued it made no sense to fund a new court putting offenders into social services the mayor wants to cut because of the deficit.

However, if a Community Justice Center proves as successful here as it has been elsewhere, The City could expect to save on jail, probation and criminal court costs. Also, federal and private foundation funding would cover much of the expense.

San Francisco’s existing programs aiding the hard-core homeless largely put a Band-Aid on the problem. The quality-of-life court at least has potential to solve part of the problem and make The City center less disheartening for average residents. It should receive a fair test.

A dysfunctional relationship with Newsom cannot allow the Board of Supervisors to continue penalizing the public by arbitrarily rejecting valid proposals. Perhaps it would be worthwhile for even the troubled 2008-09 budget to make a small investment in conflict resolution therapy for our City Hall leaders.

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