Pretrial diversion isn’t sacrosanct 

In theory, a pretrial diversion program for first-time misdemeanor offenders makes sense. Not only does it retain a tradition of mercy in our criminal justice system, but, by invoking it before a case goes to court, the program can spare the system a costly caseload. That doesn’t mean it can’t be re-evaluated and tweaked periodically.

The City’s diversion program makes it possible for a petty offender — a shoplifter, say, or a prostitute — to maintain a clean record by doing community service or undertaking counseling. We allow this leniency because we don’t want San Francisco to regress to the Paris of "Les Misérables." As well, it’s easy to project ourselves, but for grace, into an accidental infraction.

District Attorney Kamala Harris knows that any good thing can be abused. Considering the diversion program, she worried that several serious lawbreakers escaped trial over her objections. In one violent case, three passengers who beat a taxi driver slipped into the feel-good program.

Harris undertook to change eligibility for the program. As of Friday, various abusers, child beaters, self-exposers and police attackers will face the courtroom music. Predictably, the program’s supporters have rallied against her, most notably Public Defender Jeff Adachi and Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.

Harris maintains that about 11 percent of those once destined for pretrial diversion now will be eligible for jail time — a reasonable adjustment. You do wonder why Adachi and Mirkarimi are bestirred to take their all-or-nothing stand. That 11 percent, after all, if continuing on the criminal path, could account for a substantial proportion of future mayhem on the streets.

As Harris surely knows, the "broken window" school of crime-fighting, in which police officers demonstrate they mean business by targeting petty criminals — of the sort who throw bricks through the filmy panes of vacant buildings — has dramatically curbed serious crime in other cities. It should be embraced more fully here. Foot patrols may be a part of that approach, but diverting the baddies away from pretrial diversion makes sense, too.

Harris may be following the lead of Mayor Gavin Newsom, who late last year, in his "State of The City" speech, drew attention to "quality of life" issues as a means of fighting crime. Without naming the theory, he was, arguably, introducing "broken window" thinking. With rising homicide and other crime rates, the heat is on the mayor to make this his crime-fighting centerpiece.

There’s a cultural component to this as well. It’s one thing to invoke the melodramatic image of a forlorn and desperate bread thief, but in reality most of us by the time we’ve reached majority know the clear wrongness of those acts Harris has deemed unworthy of special care. For inflicting violence on others, the best therapy still is jail time.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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