“We are more violent, collectively, than the people we’re afraid of,” said George Gascón, the District Attorney of San Francisco and former police chief of San Francisco, in the kickoff of the 14th annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium at John Jay College in New York.
Gascón highlighted the violent nature of the criminal justice system that often does more harm than good by locking people up in jails and prisons that are “universities of crime.”
“We get angry at people and throw them in jail and forget about them. We think, ‘you are not part of the rest of us,’ and it creates this “us against them” that puts them in the corner and isolates them to the point of no return.”
Gascón highlighted the power and control DA’s have in establishing restorative justice, rather than harsh punishment, and led the way in 2012 by establishing neighborhood courts in San Fransisco.
Non-violent misdemeanor cases that would otherwise be prosecuted are diverted pre-charging into ten Neighborhood Courts across the City (one for each police district), where trained neighborhood volunteers hear the matters, speak with the participants (e.g. defendants under traditional prosecution) about the harm caused by their actions, and issue “directives” designed to repair the harm and address risk factors.
The small courts are run out of the DA’s budget, and sanctions could include a few of the following; writing an apology letter, fixing any damages caused, and paying for damages.
According to Gascón, victims are satisfied because they get to take part in the restorative process.
But not everyone is on board with the radical approach.
Gascón recalled a significant level of pushback when he established the neighborhood courts. In 2014, when Gascón was running for a second term, police unions would call into local radio stations and complain.
“Don’t expect the DA to do anything about victims of crime,” they said.
Then, when San Fransisco legalized Marijuana, the DA’s office came under fire for expunging almost all 9,000 marijuana cases in the system (it was the first in the nation to start the expungement process).
“I was criticized at first, but then people followed,” Gascón said.
He noted the changes were to reverse a system that reached the point of no return a long time ago.
“If crime is down, and incarceration is no longer doing it, why should we incarcerate people on the levels we do? Why?”
For a news release on the Symposium events, and a list of the 2019 Fellows, click here.
The public agenda for the conference can be downloaded here.
The 2019 symposium is organized by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice, and supported with a grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. Additional supporters include the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, and the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project.