The courts, like other government divisions and agencies, are faced with the challenge of stretching ever thinner budgets. In San Francisco, our courts are attempting to do so at the expense of the cities poorest residents and those most in need of genuine help.
In traffic court, the targets are poor and homeless people charged with Quality of Life infractions. In San Francisco, it’s illegal at almost any time of the day or night in almost any part of town, for a homeless person to sit down, rest, or go to the bathroom. As a result many are ticketed for these infractions.
The Coalition on Homelessness assists poor and homeless individuals with tickets such a having an open container, obstructing the sidewalk, urinating outside or sleeping in the park. Obviously, if homeless people had resources available to them, they would not be camping, sleeping or urinating in public. Moreover placing people in jail for failure to pay their fines is not cost effective.
Until recently, the Coalition has been able to provide people seeking assistance with a Service Form that could be used to obtain a discharge from the District Attorney based upon inability to pay and upon the defendant having received services from a homeless service provider.
Many homeless people, however, have significant difficulty getting to court in a timely manner. Barriers include illness, lack of shelter, long food lines and other vital appointments, and lack of transportation. So the Coalition would have them go down to the Hall of Justice and set a new court date.
This is no longer the case. In order to set a new court date a person must put up the amount of their original fine or go to jail and have the ticket taken care of as time served, regardless of guilt or innocence much less ability to pay. This is tantamount to having to pay to see a Judge or having clerks set bail.
Why is this happening!! San Francisco used to employ Commissioners (temp Judges) but in a effort to save money they have been replaced by “real” judges who must now sit on the bench in over-crowded traffic court. Apparently these real Judges have pruned down their dockets by granting their clerks the power to, in effect, set bail. If this is true it’s almost certainly illegal, as well as lazy and unfair.
Presiding judge of the San Francisco Superior Court, Katherine Feinstein, Daughter of California Senator and former San Francisco Mayor, Diane Feinstein, is proposing that so called chronic inebriants be jailed for outstanding public intoxication tickets and forced into treatment programs. They are specifically targeting 68 individuals who have received over 30 infractions for open containers, and then holding them 1 day in jail for each contempt charge for a total of thirty days. The jails of course, are not equipped to treat severe alcoholics, as there is severe and fatal health consequences to withdrawal from alcohol for these cases. One difficulty of this proposal is that the treatment facilities to address this issue do not exist. Our jails are not equipped to treat alcoholism which is a disease and this initiative could merely create long-term drunk tanks and call them treatment facilities. The medical profession has for decades known that alcoholism is an illness so this change is effectively jailing people for being sick. (Think of leper colonies and tuberculosis sanitariums with bars). Further, the proponents of this proposal claim that if faced with jail time, drunks would seek treatment. Well there is already a shortage of treatment beds and long waits to get one. The first court case was Friday, September 28, as we are going to press. The two defendants, have already been in jail two very dangerous days having committed no crimes, before seeing Judge Wong.
Combined these two cost saving measures represent the continuing criminalization of poor people in a degrading economy.
Homelessness is the most visible symptom of what we perceive as an America in decline. Homelessness and poverty are but outcomes of the general economic decline suffered since the Reagan Administration. If we are to blame anything, it’s the greed, short sightedness, voodoo economics of the 1980’s, and leaders that see housing as an investment, not a home that we should start with. An unregulated Wall Street has stolen the wealth of the masses to benefit the already rich. A complicit Federal Government has repeatedly bailed out irresponsible financial institutions while cutting monies for affordable housing, education and social welfare.
In the time honored tradition of scapegoating, blame is placed on those who look different and who don’t seem to conform. In medieval Europe they blamed the jews for the coming of the plague. When times are bad, blame it all on the most defenseless people and when angry and frightened, bully those least able to defend themselves
These “cost saving measures” are mean spirited, sloppy, cheap, lazy and most of all a poorly camouflaged attempts by the court to “help” people when all they do is create misery injustice and expensively incarcerate poor people and the sick merely for being poor and sick.