By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – Appointed DA Brooke Jenkins found herself criticized from two directions at a forum. On the one hand, she was attacked by John Hamasaki for veering away from reform efforts and returning to a war on crime focus. On the other hand, she was accused by Joe Alioto Veronese and Maurice Chenier of not going far enough.
The League of Women Voters on Tuesday held a candidates forum for the San Francisco DA candidates at the USF School of Law. The forum was moderated by Justice Ming Chin.
The candidates were asked how they would address the fentanyl crisis.
“On day one of my administration, the day I get sworn in, those investigators that are driving this district attorney around will go back to work. They’ll go back on the street and they will make fentanyl arrests on that day,” said Veronese. “There is no reason why that shouldn’t be happening right now as we sit here today. But instead, what’s happening is the police down in the Tenderloin are giving safe passage to kids after they get off the bus.”
Hamasaki differed, saying, “Let me be clear, the war on drugs has never succeeded in 50 years in the United States. And that’s an initial fact that we have to accept. We in San Francisco cannot stop the cartels, but what we can do is address the street level dealing in San Francisco. And we have to do it in a serious and smart way. It’s not just about lock ’em all up and throw away the key. We’ve tried that. All it does is bring out more dealers and more dealers now fighting for turf.”
Maurice Chenier responded, “Users and dealers will go to jail. I want to be clear, the reason why is you cannot fix a user without getting them into the system. Now, if you’re a serial recidivist and you want to keep doing drugs, at a certain point, we have to stop spending good money on bad.”
Brooke Jenkins said, “I truly believe we have to have more accountability in this realm. For several years, I handled these cases myself, um, and know what accountability looked like and didn’t look like. And what I know is that the DA’s office effectively decriminalized the sale of drugs over the last two and a half years. I did come in and take a tougher approach because we need a tougher approach.”
The candidates were asked about the Compassionate Alternative Response Team, or CART program, which seeks to be an alternative to the police response to homelessness.
Hamasaki explained, “I started CART. I was on the police commission when we passed the resolution directing the formation of CART.” But he said it “was held up by this administration which has focused all of the resources on policing the homeless as opposed to supporting the homeless.” He added, “We know that police are not workers for the unhoused. They’re not social workers. They’re not trained in this. So what we need is the proper professionals to come in and to address them, connect them with services, and help people find housing, find mental health treatment, find substance abuse treatment.”
Chenier said, “I will endorse any program that helps get drug addicts off the street, because that is one of my primary concerns.” He added, “It would be in conjunction with my policies to get yourself straight or go to jail plus CART.”
Jenkins responded, “I’m in favor of both CART and the Streets Crisis Response team from the San Francisco Fire Department. Anything that allows us to have intervention with the unhoused, and that also doubly benefits us in allowing the police to address the criminal conduct that’s going on. As we know, we have a police department that is almost 600 officers understaffed. We need them focused on those who are committing crimes in the city and spending theirr time and resources on that.”
Veronese added, “I am supportive of CART. But here’s the problem. Homelessness is not a crime. We need to fix this system. You’ve got CART, you’ve got the hot team, you’ve got EMS six, you’ve got all of these people out there that are just moving people around. We see that as San Franciscans, and it drives us crazy. What’s happening is our government is failing us, and we’re spending billions, about three and a half billion dollars every year on homelessness, addiction and mental health.”
The candidates were asked if they will commit to continuing the DA’s Innocence Commission.
Maurice Chenier said that he has worked in conjunction with the Innocence Project in California to free one individual. He said, “Failure to disclose is the root cause of 90% of the convictions that we have. Because as a district attorney, you’re supposed to turn over all evidence, exculpatory or otherwise, to the other side. I don’t want to win by hiding evidence. I’m going to put the evidence on. I’m going to let the jury decide, win, lose, or draw. That’s what you’ll get from me.”
Jenkins said, “I’ve already publicly committed to continuing the work of the Innocence Commission.” She explained she reached out to Professor Lara Bazelon, an esteemed professor at USF School of Law. Jenkins said, “We’re enhancing the way that referrals come in because we want to make sure that we are extending our reach to as many inmates as we can who want their cases reviewed.”
Veronese said, “Absolutely I am supportive of the Innocence Commission. In fact, I think we need to expand it. We need to expand their authority. We need to have the Human Rights Commission involved.” He explained, “The reason why we need an Innocence Commission is because we have bad cops, right? Every city has bad cops. Now, look, we’ve been working on this issue since I was police commissioner in 2004 through attrition, hiring thousands of new police officers, hundreds of new police officers since that time. But you know, what we also have is we have bad prosecutors.”
Hamasaki pointed out that supporting the Innocence Commission, “that’s pretty easy. We’re all going to agree on that. Nobody believes that innocent people should be in prison.” But he pointed out, “We do have a problem with police officers not telling the truth.” He pointed out that the current administration has had “sustained allegations of withholding discovery.” He said, “That is the way that innocent people end up in prison. That is unacceptable in San Francisco in 2022. And we need to clean up the San Francisco District Attorney’s office.”
The question was asked about juvenile transfers.
Jenkins said, “I released a policy that made it clear that we start with the presumption that all youth are to be maintained in the juvenile justice system. But that there is an exception which is for 16- and 17- year-olds who commit very egregious or heinous crimes that we will consider the need to, uh, petition to have them transferred to adult court.”
Veronese explained, “I believe that we are professionally negligent in having a blanket policy on this particular issue. We have to treat every circumstance different. Of course, that’s true in every criminal matter, but it’s especially true when we’re dealing with our children. We have an obligation to our children. We have an obligation to make sure that our children, that we don’t put our children into a system that they end up in for the rest of their lives. That’s the criminal justice system that we have here today, and we need to change that.”
Hamasaki said, “As we’ve discussed nationally, children do not belong in cages. It is destructive to their youth. We understand. We all know. Now, this is not debated that children’s brains mature more slowly. They have bad judgment, they don’t make good decisions. We have to protect them. We have to get them into the right systems to avoid the school-to-prison pipeline.” He added, “I understand there’s serious cases and violent cases that we have to address, but we need to start treating children like children and treat adults like adults.”
Chenier said, “Over the past 10 years, I’ve been studying the brain. I’ve done traumatic brain injury cases. And in fact, the youth of today are much smarter than the youth of 20 years ago, primarily because they’re exposed to so much information. So I think that the developmental age should be lowered because I think at 16 years old, in most instances, a person is able to know what’s right from wrong.”