Report: S.F. courts subpar 

San Francisco criminal courts lag nearly 20 percentage points behind California’s average in resolving felony cases within the state’s standard of one year, a confidential report found.

The report, conducted by independent experts at the request of the court’s administrators, found that the longer criminal defendants in San Francisco drag out their cases, the better plea bargains they stand to get from the District Attorney’s Office. The report also found that judges are more likely to hand down lesser sentences on older cases, "in order to induce settlement and to avoid the need to try cases."

But the agencies that argue criminal cases both stood by their handling of those cases Friday. The District Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes criminals, indicated it is "holding the line," instead of accepting light plea deals. Meanwhile, the Public Defender’s Office stated it can most effectively defend clients by waiting until the best possible plea deal, or going to trial.

"The district attorney does not make its best offers early in the life of a case," the report reads, causing, "a culture that encourages, and in fact requires, delay on the part of defense counsel to properly represent their clients."

"We’re turning around a decade-long soft approach on plea deals," District Attorney Kamala Harris said in an e-mail Friday. "We’re driving a harder bargain now. If that means that defendants would rather go to trial than take the tougher deal, then we’re ready." Harris cited her office’s 90 percent conviction rate for gun felonies.

"I think the report clearly shows a bias towards settling cases and plea bargaining," San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said Friday. "It doesn’t measure the quality of justice in cases … Is the goal of a public defender just to plead people out as quickly as possible? That’s certainly not my goal." Adachi said his office secured acquittals in 53 percent of its 2006 felony cases. "What that tells me is that we’re bringing the right cases to trial."

The standards of the state’s judicial administration call for felony cases to be resolved within one year, the report states. Statewide, superior courts resolve 91 percent of felonies within that time, but San Francisco courts only resolve 72 percent, the report found.

The report comes as law enforcement agencies in The City struggle to curb a rising violent crime rate. San Francisco has experienced 19 homicides so far in 2007 compared with 10 at the same time last year. In January, Deputy Chief Morris Tabak addressed the San Francisco Police Commission, stating that the backlog in criminal prosecution leads to more criminals conducting criminal activity on the streets.

Of the nine California trial courts in the study, San Francisco’s has the highest ratio of pending felony cases to dispositions, according to the report, which was conducted at the behest of the Administrative Office of the Courts’ Bay Area/Northern Coastal Regional Office.

"At this point the report is a draft. We’re continually striving to make sure the report contains correct references and correct data," Fred Miller, who helped write the report, said Friday.

The report was conducted by Tonna Brodie, deputy executive officer of the Ventura County Superior Court; John Graecen of the New Mexico consulting firm Graecen Associates; and Miller, a manager at the Administrative Office of Courts for the Bay Area/Northern Coastal Region.

amartin@examiner.com

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