San Francisco’s criminal justice community wants to lead the way in changing how California sentences criminals and how they are monitored when they are released from prisons.
The reform push comes as The City begins to handle an influx of newly released inmates as a result of realignment — the process of freeing some nonviolent offenders due to overcrowding in state prisons. On Wednesday, the first meeting of San Francisco’s newly established Sentencing Commission started talks about a yearslong project to create new policies that will draw a distinction between offenders who deserve prison time and others who might benefit instead from restorative justice programs and services.
The discussion falls amid of an uptick in gun violence. On Tuesday, police Chief Greg Suhr expressed concern about some of the 400 inmates who have been freed since October to local jails and probation programs. Suhr suggested that although the released inmates served time for nonviolent offenses, many have records that include convictions for violent crimes as well.
The chief’s comments came during a news conference with Mayor Ed Lee to discuss a decision to abandon a potential stop-and-frisk policy that has faced mounting controversy. Instead of randomly searching people police deem suspicious, Suhr said officers will simply have to be more vigilant monitoring parolees at risk of reoffending.
“We just can’t have the guns on the street,” Suhr said. “We’re not random in our approach to prevent this violence.”
District Attorney George Gascón, who heads the Sentencing Commission, said Wednesday that although hard data isn’t available yet to determine if recently released prisoners have contributed to violence, the chief’s points will not go unaddressed.
“The concern that the chief is raising is a concern we all share,” Gascón said.
According to Chief Adult Probation Officer Wendy Still, 333 of the 400 inmates would have been released regardless of realignment, although they will now be supervised by local probation officers instead of by the state system. Nearly half of those 333 offenders who have re-entered San Francisco since October had previously committed serious or violent felonies, Still said. Sixty-seven of them have 11 or more prior felony convictions and the vast majority are at “high risk to recidivate,” she said.
Gascón said any local policies, programs and services the newly formed commission decides to use should be designed to help lower The City’s abnormally high 77 percent rate of criminal recidivism. At least some of that failure, he suggested, can be linked to the prison system itself.
“What we’re doing today isn’t working,” Gascón said. “Violent offenders will always be the top priority for prison beds, but we don’t want to take nonviolent offenders and turn them into violent offenders.”