San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, appointed to the top prosecutor role last year, has, in her first 15 months, raised the city’s conviction rate for the first time in eight years, according to data from her office.
Conviction rates rose from 37 percent of cases in 2022 to almost 43 percent in 2023. It is the first time since 2016 that those rates have risen.
The conviction rate was largely flat between 2011 and 2016, when it began a steady decline until this year.
The change in direction fulfills a campaign promise: Under Jenkins, people accused of crimes are being pushed into the justice system more often, and a smaller proportion are being diverted to non-carceral programs. The DA ran on a platform of tough accountability for transgressions, promising to crack down on petty to violent crimes.
Despite the reversal in conviction rates, it appears that Jenkins is taking fewer individual cases to court. Her charge-filing rate is about eight percent lower this year than last.
Some legal observers have postulated that defendants who would otherwise be sent to diversion programs under prior DAs have instead taken plea deals or been tried and criminally convicted. Further, they said, the DA might have a focus on pursuing winnable cases, which would increase successful conviction rates.
“Under Jenkins, prosecutors are … more resistant to letting individuals enter appropriate diversion programs that could help with underlying issues, such as mental illness and substance-use disorder,” said the Public Defender’s spokesperson, Valerie Ibarra.
Successful diversions — those in which people accused of crimes can avoid incarceration by completing alternative programs — declined under Jenkins for the first time since 2016. Diversions had been steadily rising under prior DAs.
“When coupled with the trial backlog in San Francisco Superior Court, inhumane jail conditions, and pretrial restrictions like electronic monitoring,” Ibarra said, “these circumstances often pressure people to plea to charges they could otherwise fight at trial.”
Various research studies have shown that completion of diversion programs can help to reduce recidivism, or the likelihood that a person will be convicted again of a crime — moreso than conviction or imprisonment.
Data shows mixed charging record; petty theft, narcotics charges jump
The data from the DA’s office paints a mixed picture: While conviction rates have risen slightly, the total percentage of cases charged, or prosecuted, by the DA has remained relatively flat.
And the types of cases being charged have shifted. In cases for petty theft, charging rates have jumped from 41 percent in 2020 to 65 percent in 2022. Most of these cases are diverted, but nearly 19 percent of those cases resulted in a conviction in 2022, compared to about 8 percent in 2021.
The DA’s office has already filed nearly as many felony narcotics cases this year as were filed in all of 2022. Other case types have seen little change — theft and robbery charging rates have remained steady — while some charges, like DUIs, are being filed far less often.
Overall charging rates for violent crimes this year are also on par with those under Jenkins’ predecessor, Chesa Boudin, in 2021.
In fact, prosecution of the most heinous crimes, homicide and rape, fell between 2022 and 2023 under Jenkins’ watch. In 2022, the homicide prosecution rate dropped; this year and last year are the lowest rates in more than a decade.
It can be difficult to draw concrete conclusions about prosecution trends for more serious crimes, however: Because violent crimes are relatively rare, the sample sizes are smaller, and differences in individual cases have a greater impact on charging rates.
More convictions doesn’t necessarily mean less crime
But the apparent strategy shifts at Jenkins’ office — prosecuting drug crimes more, depending less on diversion programs, increasing conviction rates — aren’t guaranteed to lower crime in San Francisco. In fact, history has shown that they won’t.
Both the tough-on-crime and the more progressive leanings toward diversion programs are only a small piece of the puzzle, said Jonathan Simon, a professor of criminal justice law at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.
“One of the ironies of the call to a more ‘law and order’ approach is that people often associate it with being more effective at trying to reduce crime,” Simon said. “I think we have to live with the fact that the actual effects on crime are going to be marginal.”
Studies have also shown that increasing incarceration rates has no effect on reducing crime: The states with the highest incarceration rates are not necessarily those with the lowest crime rates and, often, those that have reduced crime have also reduced incarceration rates.
The higher conviction rate at the San Francisco DA’s office does not necessarily entail incarceration, and could involve house arrest, electronic monitor, or probation, for instance. But the San Francisco jail population has also quickly risen this year, recently averaging more than 1,000 inmates at a given time — the highest levels since before the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, there are 1,014 people in San Francisco jail, according to the Sheriff’s Office logs.
This comes despite an overburdened and backlogged court system, reduced services at jails, and a poorly staffed Sheriff’s Department struggling to effectively guard inmates.
Simon said there is evidence that diversion programs and moving away from mass-incarceration could be more effective. “The policies that we’ve seen emerge in the last few years,” Simon said, “they didn’t just come out of nowhere.”
California’s law-enforcement approach resulted in so many inmates locked into state prisons that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the state’s overcrowded prisons violated U.S. Constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. This approach was, additionally, widely viewed as ineffective.
Diversion programs, while they have not been studied as extensively, have been found to decrease recidivism, or the likelihood that a person will reoffend.
A 2018 study of five prosecutor-led diversion programs found that participants were considerably less likely to end up with a conviction, and less likely to get jailtime. Four of the programs reduced re-arrests within the following two years.
A 2021 study of former DA George Gascon’s Make-It-Right program, a restorative justice intervention targeting youths with felony charges of medium severity, found that participation in program reduced the probability of a rearrest within six months by nearly 20 percent — a 44 percent reduction relative to the those not in the program.
“We went all-in on mostly an ‘incapacitation’ strategy, and I think the move to diversion by progressive prosecutors is largely a response and a reaction to the failure of that approach,” Simon said. “A crackdown, a law-and-order sweep is not very likely to do anything about [crime] … it’s very possible that it’ll return us to the very grave harms that we were doing, up to a decade ago.”