Feds give San Francisco $1 million to treat crime as 'mental health' issue 

click to enlarge Supervisor Malia Cohen, left, listen as District Attorney George Gascón speaks about outreach efforts in the Bayview on Monday. - EVAN DUCHARME/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Evan DuCharme/Special to The S.F. Examiner
  • Supervisor Malia Cohen, left, listen as District Attorney George Gascón speaks about outreach efforts in the Bayview on Monday.

Where punishment has failed, San Francisco prosecutors will try a novel approach to solving crime in The City's "most distressed and violent" neighborhood: therapy.

"We want to look at the impact trauma has on the culture of violence," District Attorney George Gascón said during an appearance at the Bayview Opera House on Monday. "We want to provide counseling and services — and we want to provide intervention services."

Nearly a quarter of all San Francisco youths booked into Juvenile Hall come from the 94124 ZIP code, which includes Bayview-Hunters Point in southeastern San Francisco. The long-suffering area also has The City's highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse — and also some of the highest rates of families with children. In the eastern part of the Bayview, 70 percent of black youths are in the criminal justice system by age 17, according to the District Attorney's Office.

Many of those who commit crimes were first victims of crimes themselves — and may even suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illnesses seen by soldiers in war zones. Solving crime may require breaking this cycle of "victimization" by treating crime — and the "trauma" created by it — as a public health issue rather than solely a criminal justice question, Gascón said.

This method, a "public health approach," was at first "too outside the box" for federal officials, who denied Gascón's grant application a year ago.

However, the Bayview's problems — including a "longstanding, deep-seated and pervasive mistrust of law enforcement," according to the grant application — remain. After heaps of phone calls and arm-pulling on trips to Washington, D.C., Gascón was successful.

It's unclear what form a trauma-based crime-fighting approach will take, but The City is well-known for "alternative" criminal justice strategies such as offering jobs to first-time offenders or drug treatment services to longtime petty criminals committing crimes to feed drug habits.

Courtesy of $1 million from the U.S. Department of Justice, a year will be spent researching "the root causes of crime," Gascón said.

In the following two years, that research will be used to create "a blueprint" showing how to "reduce crime and violence without increasing incarceration."

Possible on-the-ground realities could include a victim's compensation fund or additional Department of Public Health crisis counselors deployed to children and youths in the wake of a shooting. In any event, the point will be to ensure that today's victims don't become tomorrow's victimizers.

"This is really a mental health crisis, and we deal with it from a law enforcement perspective," said Supervisor Malia Cohen, whose district includes the Bayview.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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