Gov. Gavin Newsom silent amid pleas from City Hall to save SF’s Pretrial Diversion Project

Philip Jones spent much of his early 20s in and out of jail. Since his late teens, Jones, now 27, estimates he was incarcerated 30 times. 

These were not capital offenses. 

“I was stealing new shoes because I was homeless, stealing food because I was homeless, trespassing, being drunk in public,” he recalls. “I was very much caught in a cycle.” 

Trapped, some would say. And then saved, Jones said, thanks to the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, a 43-year-old institution that seeks to divert people who are suspected of low- and high-level crimes from being caught in the criminal justice system. 

His case managers helped find him mentorship, healthcare, and income assistance. Now, Jones is living in the city, studying at San Francisco State University to be a social worker, and splitting his professional life between peer mentoring for the city’s jail reentry services, as well as a similar position in the UCSF psychology department. 

“They were there at my worst,” Jones recalled. “People meet me today and they say it’s night and day.” 

Today, the diversion project that saved Jones and hundreds of cases a year like his, finds itself similarly trapped and could fold as early as August 12. Its possible demise cannot be blamed on petty crime, but perhaps petty politics, as its 63 staff members and $3.9 million a year budget are poised to slip through a bureaucratic fissure.

That entire system is going to be just eliminated,” said David Mauroff, the CEO of SF Pretrial, as the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Program is referred to in the criminal justice world. “It will be pieced out and won’t exist anymore.” 

That despite its success: “You could probably say that, looking around the country, not many places can have this comprehensive pretrial model,” said Mauroff. 

And that may be what could doom San Francisco’s program. Its services are just the sort the California Legislature has set aside $75 million for pilot programs to undertake at 10 statewide probation departments. 

But, here’s the rub: The legislation initiating this move did not provide an exemption for San Francisco, where SF Pretrial has been doing this work since 1976. Instead, SF Pretrial could dissolve, and the city’s probation department would be funded by the state to, essentially, rebuild a seemingly identical program from scratch, without the expertise — and as a branch of law enforcement.

David Mauroff, SF Pretrial Diversion Project CEO. Photo by Abraham Rodriquez.

For more than four decades, the nonprofit, which determines whether people accused of crimes can await trial outside of a cell, has refined its approach in diverting people away from jail. It looks specifically at accused criminals’ needs for housing, employment, medical help, and substance abuse treatment, as well as providing help with transportation to court, making appointments, or, sometimes, simply a hot meal and a safe place to sleep.  

This has had positive outcomes: In the last quarter of 2018, 90 percent of those released under its system did not commit another crime, and 87 percent showed up for court. At present, 53 percent of San Francisco’s criminal defendants are awaiting the resolution of their cases out-of-custody, according to the Sheriff’s Department. 

SF Pretrial has been an alternative to the cash bail system since the Johnson Administration. So, it’s a bit ironic perhaps that its potential demise was set in motion when then-Gov. Jerry Brown in August 2018 signed SB 10 — a law that sought to dismantle the state’s cash-bail system. 

The law also tasked court probation departments with administering the cash-bail alternative: assessing whether people who have been charged with lower-level crimes are able to await their trials outside of jail; whether they are “flight risks” or a danger to society. SF Pretrial, again, has been handling those assessments in San Francisco for decades.

SB 10 is currently in limbo thanks to a referendum, pushed by the state’s bail bond industry, that will appear on the November, 2020, ballot. But the pilot program to establish pretrial services in probation departments is still moving forward.

That may be fine in jurisdictions that do not already have systems in place, said David Rizk, a member of the San Francisco Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Task Force. But for cities like San Francisco that have a longstanding system, the change could throw decades of expertise in criminal diversion out the window. 

“The point is that you have to be willing to share information with pretrial,” Rizk said. “You are able to tell them honestly do you need rehab or mental health services — not necessarily a thing you want to share with law enforcement.” 

“We already have a system that works so well,” he added. “This is a solution in search of a problem.”  

Rizk is not alone. Nearly the entire San Francisco city government — the mayor, all 11 members of the Board of Supervisors, the District Attorney, the Public Defender, and the sheriff — have opposed changing the present system to instead have pretrial services run out of the Adult Probation Department.

The only department in support of the change, in fact, is the Adult Probation Department — which would receive $13.8 million under the pilot. The program there would have to be assembled from the ground up and cost 41 percent more annually to operate than the one run by SF Pretrial, according to a cost analysis conducted on behalf of the nonprofit.  

And yet, unless Gov. Gavin Newsom steps in, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. 

Blaine Corren, a spokesman for the state Judicial Council, which decides whether the probation department receives the money, did not respond to questions regarding the council’s decision to effectively end San Francisco’s nonprofit model, despite overwhelming political will to the contrary.

Santa Clara County is the only jurisdiction to receive a “carveout” in the legislation that allows it to keep its existing system, a government entity. 

It almost could have just been, ‘and San Francisco Pretrial,’” Mauroff said. “It could have been that simple.” 

And it still could be that simple, said Supervisor Ahsha Safai who, along with his 10 other colleagues, voted in December on a resolution that supports SF Pretrial. 

“It really lies in the hands of the Governor,” Safai told Mission Local. “He could say ‘We’re in favor of an amendment’ and allow a different approach in San Francisco.” 

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office has not yet responded to our inquiries.