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.
“You’re putting somebody in jail because they’re poor and can’t pay a fine,” he said. “We got a lot of criticism, but we thought it was the right thing to do.”
Stewart noted state lawmakers’ similar response after learning that 4 million Californians had seen their driver’s licenses suspended for failing to pay traffic fines, increased substantially by fees imposed by cash-strapped local courts. Gov. Jerry Brown signed an amnesty law last year for unpaid tickets issued before 2013, cutting penalties by 50 percent, or 80 percent for low-income drivers. The law also allowed drivers to regain their licenses if they signed up for the repayment program.
Tearing up an arrest warrant doesn’t eliminate someone’s underlying criminal charge. But Stewart said those who are cited, most of them homeless, can’t afford the fine of $200 or more and seldom show up in court.
“There’s no mechanism I know of to force them to pay,” he said.
Those who come to court are usually given options, like drug treatment or community service, as an alternative to paying fines, said Teri Jackson, the court’s assistant presiding judge and head of its criminal division. Stewart added that judges are encouraging police to refer offenders to treatment programs rather than issuing citations.
Leaders of the San Francisco Police Officers Association weren’t immediately available for comment on the judges’ statements. But when Chronicle columnists Matier & Ross first reported the destruction of the warrants on Nov. 14, Martin Halloran, head of the police union, told them that the court was “sending a message that there is no accountability for what you have done, and the laws on the books can be violated with no repercussions. I don’t think it’s what the public wants.”
Stewart said the judges have chosen the best alternative available and don’t plan to resume issuing warrants. Still, he said, “people in the neighborhood have a right to be upset.”