Commentary: San Francisco Court Models How a Cooperative Approach Can Work within the Current System


By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

San Francisco, CA – A couple of weeks ago I got one of my first opportunities to see what courts look like in San Francisco under Chesa Boudin.  For all of the talk about recall, one of the limitations we have had under COVID is the relative inaccessibility of the courts to be able to monitor everyday occurrences.

What I saw a couple of weeks ago was actually quite remarkable and not at all like it has been presented to a lot of the voters.

In fact, I would argue it is one of the few times I have seen a court in my 15 years plus of coverage where all sides did their job and all sides sought to do justice in this case.

The preliminary hearing had the defendant represented by Sylvia Nguyen of the Public Defender’s Office and the case was prosecuted by Assistant District Attorney Richard Hullinger in front of Judge Loretta Giorgi.

The charges were serious—it was a domestic violence case where the defendant was accused of “mounting” the victim in bed, placing his fingers into her mouth attempting to stop her from screaming for help.  The victim then bit his fingers and he apparently bit her on the arm.

The defense then filed a 17(b) motion to reduce the felony charges to misdemeanors in this case.

Nguyen argued, “(The defendant) has no prior record before these cases. He has no prior misdemeanors, no prior felonies.”

She made a request for bail and OR release.  She noted letters provided by members of the community regarding the childhood and background of the defendant.

She argued that he is not “any type of criminal.”  She added, “I think there is a lot of issues that he needs addressed, and I think that is made very clear in the letters that were provided by his aunt and his grandmother.”

She said, he “has the potential to succeed and turn his life around with a good structure in place for him. He is very young. He is only 24 years old….  He has never been charged with felonies before.  I’m asking the Court to consider reducing these felony counts to misdemeanors.”

His case manager from VJC (Veterans Justice Court) talked about the treatment plan in place for the defendant.  Nguyen pointed out, “he has never actually engaged in a residential treatment program before, so this will be his first time. Mr. Davis, as well as his family, and even myself included, highly recommend (the defendant) and want him to engage in residential treatment regardless of whether he is facing a felony or a misdemeanor. I think he has a great treatment plan in place.”

Nguyen noted, “I think the treatment plan that Mr. Davis has in place for (defendant) is very stringent.  I think Mr. Davis has also informed me that I believe his office is actually just 50 yards away from where (defendant) would even be staying. So, I would ask the Court to consider releasing (defendant) just given all the information provided in my written motion.

However, Assistant DA Hullinger believed this was felony conduct.  He argued he thinks “that it is inappropriate to reduce these to misdemeanors at this time. This shows a pattern of escalating conduct that goes back two years, almost two years now. There—it is getting worse, and it seems that a felony is appropriate. And he was charged with misdemeanors for somewhat similar conduct, but then this one is really—has gone too far and that is why the felonies have been charged in this case.”

At the same time, “the People recognize that the help that (the defendant) needs is not going to happen in county jail.”

Judge Giorgi said that, having read the history of the defendant, he “can understand why we got to where we are at right now. But it is clear: He truly needs a lot of intensive help so that he can—he is young, okay? His brain isn’t even fully developed yet. He need skills to get out. He needs to get to this drinking problem and if there are other substance, all of that under control. Particularly, given your condition and your functioning.”

She continued, “That being said, though, these are real serious. This is, you know, these incidents are very serious in terms of the escalation of the conduct. And this isn’t just sort of a little hit or whatever. And I know some of that is intertwined in sort of his issues from childhood, I’ll just put it that way, having heard from Edgewood. I mean, I know where Edgewood is. I know what Edgewood does. And I get it. I totally get it.

“But you are getting to be an adult now and you have a full life ahead of you. And we have got to really tackle some of these issues that you have, whether it is through medication and behavioral therapy, substance abuse treatment, all of that. And it is going to take a lot of work.”

The judge denied the 17(b) request, saying that “this is serious conduct.”

But she added, “I believe in big carrots and big sticks.”  She wanted to see a plan for treatment, “a very strict plan” and she was prepared to release him “to be transported to Harbor Lights with a GPS as a home detention.  He has got to remain there.  The only time he can leave is for programming purposes until further order of the court.”

She also ordered that he stay away from the victim and terminate his relationship.

The judge: “We need to be very clear: this toxic relationship has to be done with on both sides.”

The remarkable thing about this case is that everyone understood that this was a young man who did something serious—this was not just a small hit and while he did not have a criminal record, this wasn’t a one-off incident either.  The DA and judge were correct to keep felony charges on him.

But both the DA and the judge also recognized that having him sit in county jail was not helpful to the defendant or the community.  He had a chance to put his life back together, but not by locking him in a cage.

The judge and DA took appropriate steps to protect the victim and the community, while at the same time, hopefully, giving the defendant the treatment he needed to be able to get over his childhood trauma and stay out of the criminal justice system.

Will this work?  There are of course no guarantees, but as we know, with a 60 to 70 percent overall recidivism rate, it’s not like the traditional system has worked especially well either.


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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