Pretrial Diversion project's offices. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez

In the face of imminent dissolution, a 43-year-old San Francisco institution that paved the way for bail reform, long before bail reform was a political winner, has been spared. 

A state body decided Friday to not funnel millions of dollars to the San Francisco Adult Probation Department, thus sparing the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, a nonprofit that has, since 1976, worked to divert criminal suspects from incarceration while they’re awaiting trial. 

Supporters of the nonprofit argued that dissolving the longtime institution — and putting its work in the hands of less experienced law-enforcement personnel — would undo decades of expertise in restorative justice, and imperil a widely embraced system that has become a model for cash bail alternatives. 

While California’s new goals for pretrial diversion looks much like what SF Pretrial has been advocating for since the 1970s, the city program was nearly eliminated by state efforts to achieve the same end.

Rather than the 43-year-old SF Pretrial operating on $3.9 million per year, the San Francisco Adult Probation Department would have been the recipient of $13.8 million in state funds to take over the job of assessing whether criminal suspects can await court dates outside of a jail cell.

This move induced a cavalcade of local political opposition, including the mayor, the entire Board of Supervisors, and prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. And, on Friday, their hopes were answered. 

“SF Pretrial is incredibly relieved and we support the decision — but we understand there’s also work to do at the local and state level to continue driving pretrial services in the right direction,” the nonprofit’s chief executive David Mauroff said in a phone interview. “As an agency we can finally get back to our day-to-day work and not have this cloud hanging over our heads.” 

“We want to express our deep appreciation to everyone who supported our agency and San Francisco’s pretrial system,” Mouroff added. 

The Judicial Council did not answer questions regarding its actions. Council spokeswoman Merrill Balassone only offered: “31 courts applied for the funding and 16 were selected. It was a rigorous application process and review.” 

San Francisco Probation Chief Karen Fletcher did not return a call seeking comment. 

The scenario that culminated on Friday was set into motion when then-Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed Senate Bill 10 into law, effectively eliminating the state’s cash bail system. The law’s implementation, however, has been put on hold pending a referendum placed on the November 2020 ballot by the bail bond industry.

The staying of the law, however, did not keep state lawmakers and the Judicial Council from moving forward with a pilot program that would lay the groundwork for cash bail alternatives. Counties partaking in the pilot can now formulate systems for assessing which people accused of crimes are fit to await court dates outside of jail. 

Establishing pilot programs within probation departments in counties without extant pretrial services such as San Francisco’s could be a step in the right direction, some experts say — but, in the same swoop, completely replacing San Francisco’s nonprofit model would have been disruptive and costly. 

Instead, the state directed the $13.8 million that would have gone to San Francisco to counties without any system in place, such as Kings, Calaveras, Sacramento and Modoc counties. 

The other counties that received money were: Alameda, Los Angeles, Napa, Sierra-Nevada, San Joaqin, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Sonoma, Tulare, Tuolumne, Ventura and Yuba. 

“The judiciary started this because we care about access to justice and fairness,” said state Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye on Friday. 

Overall, she said, this groundwork is the beginning of “a fairer system.” 

Julian Mark

Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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1 Comment

  1. Joe,

    This isn’t surprising. I didn’t think the state representatives of SF would adopt a law that would end this long standing program.

    But I’m curious about just who is the Judicial Council, its authority, and its role in the legal system? In common discussions it’s assumed judges have absolute authority and discretion over the process and outcomes of cases before them, as administrators of statutory laws. In that context, the Judicial Council seems to be extralegal.


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