Court officials feud over diversion program 

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi is accusing District Attorney Kamala Harris of getting tough on the wrong crime cases by tightening eligibility standards for a program that allows first-time misdemeanor offenders to receive counseling and do community service; a program, she counters, is too soft on some criminals.

Under changes made by Harris — that will go into effect Friday — certain offenses will no longer be eligible for The City’s Pretrial Diversion program: abusing, endangering or causing physical trauma to a child, indecent exposure and physically assaulting a police officer.

Adachi, who organized a rally Monday to encourage public outcry against the changes, told the crowd of diversion supporters, including Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi and representatives from such groups as the Asian Law Caucus and Books Not Bars, that the 30-year-old Pretrial Diversion program should not be changed but expanded.

Diversion supporters at the rally said it gives a second chance to first offenders, allowing people who have made a criminal mistake to make amends while still keeping their jobs, their families and, in the case of immigrants, their life here in the United States.

Harris said numerous cases during her three years as district attorney were approved by a judge for pretrial diversion, over her objections, including one in which a taxi driver was beaten by three passengers over a fare disagreement.

"Shoplifting is a very different crime than three people beating up on somebody," Harris said.

The program’s changes, according to Harris, would make about 11 percent of offenders previously eligible for pretrial diversion now eligible for jail time.

Although there also had been discussion about making first-time misdemeanor battery cases ineligible, Harris told The Examiner on Monday that — with the exception of cases that involve a group or mob beating — those battery offenders will still be able to take advantage of the anger management classes or other alternatives offered by the diversion program.

According to Adachi, of the 451 battery offenders — including battery of a police officer — who went through diversion from 2003-06, 94 percent have no subsequent convictions.

Other common first-time misdemeanor cases that are, with some exceptions, still eligible for pretrial diversion include: stealing from an automobile, petty theft, shoplifting, vandalism, prostitution and public intoxication. In addition to counseling, the program also requires the offenders to perform community service. Participants have their case dismissed without receiving a criminal record.

At Monday’s rally, Adachi and others also said Harris’ changes would unnecessarily contribute to San Francisco’s overcrowded courts and jails.

Harris said such arguments were irrelevant.

"This is about recognizing that certain types of crimes deserve a more serious type of punishment," she said.

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Bonnie Eslinger

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