Kind Justice?
San Francisco tries the "good cop, good cop" routine

San Francisco is a pretty damn safe place to live these days. While it's easy to imagine that Nash Bridges and Dirty Harry are actually walking the beat, top law enforcement officials in the city like District Attorney Terence Hallinan and Sheriff Mike Hennessey are more inclined to have Chomsky on the nightstand than a .44 Magnum. Their controversial and progressive approach towards criminal justice and prosecutions is getting a lot of negative ink -- but it seems to be working.

See also...
... by Patrick Hughes
... in the Scope section
... from September 30, 1999

The facts are indisputable: crime in San Francisco is at the lowest point in nearly twenty years. According to the SFPD, homicides are down 19 percent; rape and robberies are down 27 percent and 11 percent, respectively, from 1997. Yet recent headlines in the conservative San Francisco Chronicle scream, "Hallinan's Record Worst in State," and "S.F. Jails School for Scandal." Not exactly the kind of support you'd expect with numbers like that, but then as the lone voice of conservatism in the city, the paper has to say something.

San Francisco is well known for it's ultra-liberal politics. Four years ago, city voters chose a new District Attorney and re-elected Mike Hennessey for his fifth term on just the sort of progressive meat-and-potatoes issues that San Franciscans love. Both supported issues like legalized medical marijuana and decriminalizing prostitution. As DA, Hallinan turned law enforcement's focus on prostitution's male customers, instituting the First Offender Prostitution Program. The plan imposes stiff fines against johns and sentences them to mandatory education classes, which boast a zero recidivism rate. Their offices also point to a record of success that includes diversionary programs for non-violent offenders and the hiring of minorities and women as Deputy Sheriffs and Assistant DA's.

The Chronicle's constant caterwauling against Hallinan is rooted in their claim that he's a lousy DA, with a conviction rate of almost 33 percent. Hallinan charges back that unlike other cities, the police department doesn't screen out the weak cases before submitting them to the DA, and therefore, his actual conviction rate should be considerably higher.

Others have questioned the very idea of measuring a DA's success by conviction rate, pointing out that the system has nothing to do with obtaining justice or reducing crime.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Hennessey took his hit for a class that taught basic civil rights law to inmates. Exaggerating the importance of some comments used by the teacher as an attention-getting device, the paper made it appear that the class was on how to outwit the local police department. (Hennessey actually taught this class himself before becoming Sheriff.) Naturally, this became fodder for the national media, which always enjoys a cynical chuckle at the expense of S.F.'s "wacky" liberalism.

Indeed, the paper may be playing to a nationwide audience, fearing that success in San Francisco will encourage other law enforcement officials to adopt similar open-minded policies. Progressives are popping up in various positions around the country. In California's Mendicino County, voters recently elected Norman Vroman as District Attorney on a pro-medical marijuana platform, and in Springfield Massachusetts, Sheriff Mike Ashe continues to be popular with his progressive programs that bear a striking similarity to Hennessey's diversionary programs.

The white, right, and uptight Chronicle is not alone in their criticism of Hallinan. The DA is facing a challenge from the left by 34-year-old San Francisco Public Defender, Matt Gonzalez. "Hallinan has failed to implement a progressive agenda for San Francisco," Gonzalez recently told GettingIt. "He has successfully diversified the DA's office with women, and gay and lesbian attorneys, but he has elevated them so quickly that they are losing big cases. They are handling life in prison cases and haven't even tried five misdemeanors cases. It's really appalling."

Gonzalez's platform for District Attorney packs a much stronger progressive punch. He calls for a moratorium on the death penalty, decriminalizing marijuana, and proposes restricting California's "three strike" law. In a bygone era, he would have been considered a fringe candidate, but in the age of "radical" DA Hallinan, his campaign is drawing attention and support. Gonzalez's candidacy has already been endorsed by several Democratic organizations like The Latino Democratic Club and San Francisco Tenants Union.

Despite various efforts to portray the policies of the current DA and Sheriff with scorn and occasional sarcasm, Hallinan and Hennessey were elected because their ideas resonated with the voters who agreed that their pragmatic approach to crime is a worthy alternative to the harsh rhetoric that dominates law enforcement. It remains to be seen if the experiment will continue, or if the voters will turn to an even more radical approach in the upcoming election.

"I must be doing okay, if I'm getting it from both sides," Hallinan says philosophically. "But the reality is that I am by far the most progressive District Attorney in the United States. I'm the only one with a plan to try and not just lock people up."

Patrick Hughes hopes to never get caught.