Since we’re talking about California in general and San Francisco in particular it’s probably difficult to surprise us anymore when some crazytown news crops up, but this item from the San Francisco Gate should still raise a few eyebrows. A Superior Court judge out there found himself explaining why he had tossed out more than 66,000 arrest warrants last year and essentially stopped issuing new ones for what are frequently described as “quality of life crimes.”
San Francisco’s chief judge says he and his colleagues discarded 66,000 arrest warrants issued over five years for quality-of-life crimes, like sleeping on the sidewalk, because it made no sense to lock people up for fines they couldn’t afford.
The crimes, which also include urinating on sidewalks and being drunk in public, are infractions punishable only by fines. But when those who were cited failed to show up in court, judges in the past have issued bench warrants ordering them to appear, with a sentence of five days in jail for failing to show up.
But San Francisco Superior Court judges stopped issuing the warrants a year ago and recently disposed of about 66,000 bench warrants issued since January 2011. The city’s police union and some members of the public have protested, but Presiding Judge John Stewart defended the court’s action Tuesday in a meeting with The Chronicle’s editorial board.
These are primarily crimes involving vagrancy, public intoxication and other low level crimes which nonetheless tend to detract from the quality of life in the community. And that’s why the generic description is so ironic here. The actual “quality of life” issue under discussion isn’t that of the defendants who were found to be urinating in front of the diner or sleeping on a park bench. It’s the expectations of the rest of the voters and taxpayers in the community who wanted those activities outlawed in the first place.
The problem being addressed by the judge is a real one and I’m not trying to brush it off. When you impose a fine on someone who clearly can’t muster up the two hundred dollars to pay it (because they were sleeping under a pile of newspapers in the park) you’re not likely to see a normal result. But there’s also the question of the rule of law here. These rules are obviously targeted primarily at people who are most often the ones who have no money to pay fines. But if you remove the threat of being arrested and tossed in the drunk tank for a few days, then why do you have the law on the books in the first place? A law which carries no penalty for violations isn’t really a law. It’s a suggestion.
California already had at least something of a solution to this puzzle on the books. As the Gate notes, the governor signed an amnesty law for traffic violations in 2015 forgiving unpaid tickets issued before 2013. The bill also reduced penalties by 50 percent, or 80 percent for low-income drivers and let some drivers keep their licenses if they signed up for a repayment program to cover the fines over time. That’s not entirely crazy or unlawful because it still allows people to remain mobile and functional if they’re at least showing that they are making an effort to pay. Could a similar sort of one time amnesty and repayment plan combined with drug and alcohol rehab outreach programs work for these other “quality of life” crimes? Then if the defendants still refuse to show up in court, make any payments or otherwise show any effort to comply, you can at least say that you tried to help before locking them up.
But this “resolution” is simply crazy. A judge has essentially decriminalized behavior which is against the law. That’s not how it works, your honor. That’s not how any of this works.