Ken Garcia: Few cities more welcoming than S.F. — for hardened criminals 

If you ever wondered why so many career criminals come to San Francisco to ply their trade, the answer was brought home with stunning clarity this week.

It’s safer for them to be here — and more dangerous for you.

That was the bottom line in a presentation made to the Police Commission this week in which the Police Department’s chief of investigations outlined the gaping hole in the criminal justice system, which allows serious felons routinely to get stay-out-of-prison passes in San Francisco.

That will partially explain why nearly 30 percent of all felony crimes in San Francisco are committed by people from outside The City. Police brass say they come here because chances are they will face tougher prosecution and prison sentences if they travel to regions like Santa Clara, San Mateo or even tiny Shasta County, places where they play hardball — three strikes and you’re out.

"We see a positive effect when we can arrest and convict a lot of those people who are involved in multiple crimes and have lengthy arrest records,’’ Deputy Chief Morris Tabak told the commission, punctuating his words with statistics that underscore just how rare that scenario is in San Francisco. "Few dynamic factors affect the crime rate as much as a lenient criminal justice system. Therefore, in my opinion, historical criminal justice practices need to change.’’

But let’s give credit where it is due. California’s prison system may be overflowing, but that’s not due to The City’s prosecutors and judges, who appear to be doing their best to keep the prison population thin.

That is not to say the punishment always fits the crime or that there should be a one-size-fits-all philosophy in handing out sentences for our veteran lawbreakers — far from it. But the numbers clearly show that San Francisco is quite alone when it comes to punishing known and violent criminals, and that’s simply not a very good place to be when shots are being fired.

According to Department of Justice statistics compiled by Tabak, the San Francisco Police Department has been relatively steady in its number of felony arrests over the years, averaging about 20,000 annually since 1995. Yet in the same time period, the number of felony admissions to state prison from San Francisco has gone from about 1,400 to just under 500, a percentage drop so steep you might get dizzy on the way down.

And then the numbers get really bad.

The state attorney general’s office reports that the felony admission rate to state prison between 2002 and 2004 for every 100 adult felony arrests — which covers two years of former District Attorney Terence Hallinan’s reign of ineptitude — is less than 4 percent. By comparison, Los Angeles County averaged nearly 40 percent, Fresno County 27 percent and San Mateo and Santa Clara counties 21 percent.

You’ll begin to see a pattern here. This is crime and no punishment.

Need further proof? In 2005, San Francisco, with a population just under 800,000, sent 436 convicted felons to prison. During the same period, tiny Yolo and Shasta counties (population around 175,000 each) sent 512 and 607 felons to the big house, and even the pot-embracing populace of Humboldt County (population 125,000) sent 270. Sonoma County, with a population about half the size of San Francisco, sent just as many people to prison as the city of St. Francis, while San Mateo County sentenced nearly 800. Even liberal Santa Barbara packed nearly 900 felons off to prison, a fairly startling number.

While many lefty justice advocates abhor California’s three strikes law, it appears to have proven an effective deterrent to some career criminals. Yet that may explain why so many people with a two-strike count would want to spend quality time in The City by the Bay. As of last September, 470 people had been sentenced under "three strikes’’ in Santa Clara County alone, 121 in Alameda County, 90 in San Mateo and 82 in Contra Costa. Where did San Francisco end up on the criminal sentencing map? With a whopping count of 37 — even behind the hot-tub-filled confines of Marin County, which had 44.

All the numbers haven’t headed in the wrong direction in SanFrancisco, as The City’s homicide rate dropped last year. That bucked a national trend in big cities, and the Police Department can take some pride in that.

But when you look at all the crime statistics, and the fact that felons see The City as a destination stop, you can see that there’s no safety in numbers.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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