fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

Courts test new approach to homeless crimes

SAN FRANCISCO — Courts around the country tried to ease the burden of fines and fees in the wake of riots in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 that brought attention to a torrent of traffic and other minor citations that saddled people with debt and even sent them to jail.

But legal observers say no court appears to have made as dramatic an attempt at reform as San Francisco, where judges no longer issue warrants to arrest people who fail to show up in court or pay tickets for infractions such as urinating in public, loitering or sleeping in a park — so-called quality-of-life crimes that advocates say target homeless people. The new policy also applies to traffic violations.

"I've never heard of anything like it," said Bill Raftery, senior analyst with the National Center for State Courts who has studied court efforts to address fees and fines.

San Francisco implemented the change in 2015, but it went largely unnoticed until late last year when its court took the additional step of tearing up nearly 65,000 outstanding warrants issued over five years for quality-of-life infractions.

The court still assesses fines and an additional $300 fee that it tries to collect through an outside firm. But it does not seek the person's arrest for failing to pay.

Many of the people facing the infractions were homeless and couldn't afford the fines, court spokeswoman Ann Donlan said.

"Throwing people in jail for sleeping on the sidewalk is not accomplishing anything," she said.

Travis Perot, 36, said he spent more than two years on the streets in San Francisco starting around 2015 — a period during which he was repeatedly cited by police for sleeping in parks or on the street. Paying the tickets was not an option.

"I never had the money to pay them," he said.

Even in progressive San Francisco, however, the move to stop issuing warrants faced sharp criticism from the mayor and head of the police union. Homelessness — ubiquitous in San Francisco — is a thorny political issue that has grown thornier still amid a technology industry boom that has made affordable housing scarcer.

The mayor's office told local newspapers that judges were shirking their duty and throwing away opportunities to help the homeless.

San Francisco Police Officers Association President Martin Halloran said the court was sending a bad message.

"We get thousands upon thousands of calls a year about quality-of-life concerns by the residents of this city," he said. "With no consequence now, with none whatsoever, there's no reason why anyone has to obey the law."

Citations can push the homeless to seek services through the court or nonprofit groups, and police have no intention of issuing less of them, said Robert Rueca, a San Francisco police spokesman.

"We know that there are other resources and diversion programs that these citations kind of instigate," he said.

San Francisco Police Officer Kathleen Cavanaugh talks to a man May 24 after an incident while patrolling Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. [AP Photo/Jeff Chiu]