By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – Critics are concerned that newly-appointed San Francisco DA Brooke Jenkins is reigniting the failed war on drugs. On Wednesday, she announced a new policy that claims to hold drug dealers accountable by prohibiting dealers arrested with more than five grams of drugs from being referred to San Francisco’s community justice court (CJC).
The DA’s office announced, “The new policy will also consider adding charging enhancements for drug dealing within 1,000 feet of a school and the office will potentially seek pre-trial detention of fentanyl dealers in extreme cases.”
They charged, “The previous administration’s policy had no weight limit threshold, was not adhering to CJC guidelines, and allowed drug dealers, arrested with as much as 500 grams of fentanyl, and who had multiple open fentanyl cases, to be referred to CJC.”
Jenkins also announced that she has revoked over 30 open plea offers put forward “by the previous administration.”
She cited one person who had six open cases for dealing fentanyl in the Tenderloin. According to her office, that individual “was arrested with more than 100 grams of the deadly drug and was in CJC at the time District Attorney Jenkins assumed the office.”
The office said this person had been referred to CJC over five times “despite failing to complete any of the CJC mandated requirements and violating the terms of a stay away order from the Tenderloin area when he was arrested on each subsequent new case” and was offered “a single misdemeanor to settle all six cases. “
“Since 2020, nearly 1,5000 people have died of drug overdoses in part because dealers have been allowed to operate with impunity,” said District Attorney Brooke Jenkins. “The lethality of fentanyl presents a different challenge, and we must immediately change course, so we can save lives and hold people accountable for the havoc they are wreaking in our communities like the Tenderloin and South of Market. Going forward defendants holding lethal doses of fentanyl will face felony charges.”
But critics worry that the changes will do more harm than good and reignite the failed war on drugs, that has disproportionately impacted people of color.
“The District Attorney’s newly announced policies around drug cases are exactly the type of regressive and carceral practices that have exacerbated the public health crisis of substance abuse, and have only fueled the mass incarceration of impoverished people and disproportionately harmed BIPOC communities for decades,” Elected Public Defender Mano Raju pushed back in a statement.
He noted, “Seeking pretrial detention for more people will only intensify the public health crisis in our jails which are in the midst of a record COVID outbreak, and the constitutional crisis in our courts where hundreds of people are waiting for trials past their speedy trial deadline. Judges still must adhere to the California Supreme Court’s Humphrey decision that prevents jailing people simply because they are too poor to post cash bail.”
He called the threshold proposed by Jenkins “arbitrary” and warned that “jailing people who are suffering from addiction can lead to worse health outcomes, such as overdoses.”
There are practical implications as well.
Raju warned, “With the number and proximity of schools in San Francisco, the DA is using a broad stroke to threaten people with sentence enhancements, which will not address the public health crisis of drug addiction. Enhancements for any offense have never been shown to be effective at prevention or intervention, and have never been applied in a race-neutral way.”
Jenkins has made holding drug dealers “accountable” a focal point of her early administration.
The DA’s office cited Superior Court data reported by another media publication to claim “the previous administration did not obtain a single conviction for dealing fentanyl in all of 2021.”
“District Attorney George Gascón oversaw at least 90 drug-dealing convictions by the District Attorney’s Office in 2018,” the DA’s office said.
DA Jenkins ordered a review of open narcotics sales cases and found that, as of last month, “there are approximately 156 open narcotics sales (or possession for sale cases) in collaborative courts. Notably, 57% (88) of those cases involve the sale of fentanyl.”
“No one deserves to live in the conditions that we experience every day in the Tenderloin,” said Greggory, a third generation San Franciscan and longtime Tenderloin community resident. “I am hopeful that District Attorney Jenkins’ new approach will send a clear message that drug dealers will face consequences for the disruption and deaths they are causing.”
For the open plea offers District Attorney Jenkins revoked, the District Attorney’s office will seek a felony charge that includes jail time as part of the new offer.
But last week in an interview with the Vanguard, Matt Gonzalez, the chief attorney in the Public Defender’s Office, warned against such an approach.
Gonzalez said, “The reality is if they want to go to trial in every single case, let’s do it. I mean our clients do better when they go to trial.”
Part of that is that they often win their cases, “but even if they don’t,” Gonzalez said, “the judge who is going to be imposing a sentence actually has to consider their individual circumstances when meting out some kind of punishment.”
But, in addition, he explained that things like diversion programs and plea bargaining were not created to help or aid the defense.
“They actually were created to deal with just fundamental reality that the system actually cannot prosecute all of these cases,” he said.
On Wednesday, Mano Raju added, “If District Attorney Jenkins truly wants to address the issues facing our city, she should not be relying on outdated and politically expedient soundbites about harsher enforcement. Fifty years of evidence from the war on drugs have shown that these punitive practices have not prevented recidivism nor improved community health and safety. San Francisco can and must do better than this. We should instead invest our city’s resources in funding more effective solutions, such as housing, jobs, and treatment.”