San Francisco, CA

Half of people released from prison before trial committed new crimes in San Francisco after being freed

Josue Torres
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According to new research, almost half of individuals charged with crimes and released from prison before their trials in San Francisco in recent years failed to appear in court, and a comparable proportion was suspected of committing a new crime while free.

According to the results of the study, from May 2016 to December 2019, more than one in every six offenders reportedly committed a new violent crime, according to the California Policy Lab, located at UC Berkeley and UCLA.

Experts and activists said the reasons behind the numbers are complicated, posing difficulties to the city’s efforts to decrease the amount of low-risk individuals in prison before they are convicted of a crime and provide them the help they may need to improve their lives.

Many of the lowest-risk offenders, who get a citation reminding them to appear in court and are promptly released, are not included in the statistics.

Numbers may also be influenced by homelessness and addiction, which can feed crime and prevent individuals from appearing in court. 

In recent counts, one in every three individuals in San Francisco prisons was unhoused, and almost three out of every four had a history of substance abuse.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, a former prosecutor who has expressed doubts about previously stated success rates for individuals freed from jail before trial said that this report shows how things are not being done well.

Stefani intends to propose legislation that would mandate more detailed reporting of court attendance and reoffense rates, including offenses committed outside of the city, throughout the length of a defendant’s case.

She also intends to carry out the report’s suggestion for more involvement to assist individuals in keeping their court dates.

The study comes at a critical juncture in the nation, as criminal justice reform spreads throughout the country and some counties seek to release more pretrial defendants, addressing inequalities in police and the bail system that have kept more poor people and people of color behind bars.

Accusations that San Francisco is overly lenient on individuals convicted of crimes have sparked two recall campaigns against progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, despite the fact that the latest report’s data predates his tenure. 

Boudin, who eliminated cash bail for all criminal defendants in the city, and his supporters argue that the country’s dependence on imprisonment has failed.

Historically, courts have depended on the bail system to release individuals accused of crimes, but they may also be released with electronic monitoring or to rehabilitative programs such as substance abuse treatment. 

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People arrested for minor offenses are often released with a citation instructing them to appear in court on a later date.

San Francisco has attempted to take the lead in advocating for change. 

The city adopted a new nationally standardized algorithm tool in 2016 to forecast whether a person would re-offend or flee if released from prison.

The aim was to avoid using bail, which many people condemned for punishing poor people, and to minimize prejudice in judges’ judgments about who should be freed.

Since 2018, more offenders have been released under the supervision of the nonprofit San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, which has been providing services for more than four decades. 

The charity, which presently works with the Sheriff’s Department, handled about two-thirds of the cases examined in the latest study.

The organization has shared higher success rates than those in the report, but the numbers aren’t directly comparable because the nonprofit limits its tracking to the time clients are in its programs, which averages 90 to 120 days, and does not track newly committed crimes outside of San Francisco, unlike the UC report.

The latest study examined three distinct metrics of success: 

  1. How many offenders were released from jail before their trial appeared in court.
  2. How many were not suspected of reoffending.
  3. How many reportedly committed new violent crimes. 

Counties desire high rates in all three categories.

According to the California Policy Lab report, which was published on July 1, San Francisco’s rates were substantially lower than the local and nationwide verified rates.

Comparisons to other states, according to the author, are difficult owing to different regulations and reporting requirements.

According to study author Johanna Lacoe, the statistics do not include many offenders charged with low-level offenses who just get a ticket. 

Those offenders may be assessed in counties other than California, skewing statistical comparisons.

Except for the percentage of individuals accused of committing new violent crimes, which was 18% in San Francisco compared to 9% in Los Angeles, San Francisco’s figures matched those of Los Angeles.

Separately, the California Policy Lab study assessed the precision of the algorithm used to inform court decisions on defendant release. 

The tool calculates a risk score and recommends release or imprisonment based on variables such as a defendant’s age and prior record. 

In about 70% of the instances in the study, judges adopted the suggestions.

The tool was shown to be a fair to good predictor of flight and repeat crimes, according to the study. However, it discovered some signs of racial and gender prejudice.

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According to the study, black and Latino individuals were more likely to appear in court than white counterparts who were given the same risk of flight. 

Women were less likely to conduct new offenses than males with the same risk ratings.

According to Lacoe, socioeconomic considerations may cause prejudice in who is recommended for release. For example, because of where they reside and how they are handled by police, Black people may have more severe criminal records, which will be reflected in their risk score.

Stefani’s proposal would compel courts to report what occurs when judges fail to use the risk assessment tool, and it would implement the study’s suggestion to eliminate bias in the instrument.

The researchers examined 9,881 instances in which individuals were charged by the District Attorney’s Office and released from prison before going to trial.

Some individuals were engaged in multiple cases. 49% of those summoned to court did not show. According to the study, 55% were detained for committing a new offense.

In the average year between 2016 and 2019, 63% of clients in San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project programs appeared in court, 16% reportedly committed a new crime, and approximately 5% were suspected of committing a new violent felony, according to California Policy Lab.

Stefani questioned the numbers, pointing out that the charity represented the vast majority of the instances in the latest study. 

Stefani voted against the nonprofit’s two most recent contracts, which totaled $15.9 million over the previous four years and $18.8 million over the following three.

According to David Mauroff, CEO of the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, the data is reliable and the reporting criteria were established by a committee that included the district attorney, the public defender, and the probation department. 

Because of restricted access to such information, his group has not included crimes allegedly committed by prisoners freed before their trial outside of San Francisco in its counts, he said.

The District Attorney’s Office spokesperson, Rachel Marshall, said the nonprofit’s clients had had “tremendous success.”

Mauroff admitted that San Francisco releases more offenders than many other counties, increasing the likelihood that they would re-offend. 

He emphasized that the city has tougher guidelines for gun-related crimes.

According to experts, San Francisco could assist individuals in helping them show up for court and giving them access to housing, therapy, and assistance in applying for employment and education.

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