Crime, Arrest and Conviction Trends Shift; Causes Remain Elusive

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California Department of Justice data suggests a dramatic decline in felony arrests in San Francisco. In 2008, there were 18,282 felony arrests compared to 8,753 in 2011, and 7,709 in 2014. For violent felonies, 3,904 arrests were made in 2008, with 1,871 in 2014. Arrests for felony property crimes have also dropped, with 3,165 made in 2008, compared to less than half that number in 2014; 1,164 arrests.

While arrests rates have fallen, violent crime rates in the City have remained steady over the years.  And beginning in 2011 there was a sharp increase in reported property crimes. According to DOJ data, 51,854 crimes were reported in San Francisco for 2014, including 6,761 violent offenses and 45,093 property crimes. In total, 16,423 arrests were made in 2014.

According to Max Szabo, communications and legislative affairs manager for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, the DA’s rate of reviewing cases and seeking convictions is consistent with levels prior to George Gascón becoming DA in 2011, and has remained within a few percentage points since then. A drop in arrest rates by the San Francisco Police Department translates into fewer cases presented to the DA’s Office. Szabo didn’t offer any insights as to why the police are making fewer arrests. 

Based on data from “Eliminating Mass Incarceration: How San Francisco Did It,” published by the JFA Institute, which evaluates criminal justice practices and policies, since 2009 San Francisco has experienced a significantly greater reduction in jail and prison populations than the rest of California. In 2014, the City’s incarceration rate was 279 per 100,000 people, 50 percent less than statewide, and one-third less than nationally. The study cites a number of measures that have lowered incarceration levels, including the San Francisco Re-Entry Council, a 23-member group of San Franciscans which identifies ways to transition convicts back into society, and the San Francisco Sentencing Commission, which develops strategies to reduce recidivism.   Fewer arrests also results in fewer individuals being sentenced to jail.

The JFA report examined San Francisco crime rates since the 1960s, and found an overall reduction in crime following a 1980 peak. Rising crime rates forty years ago resulted in accompanying incarceration increases. The report also suggests that San Francisco has a decades-long history of progressive criminal justice reform, resulting in a low conviction and sentencing rate compared to most California counties, by diverting wrongdoers to such programs as the Neighborhood Courts.

The report noted that in 2011 San Francisco property crime rates began to increase, coinciding with Assembly Bill 109 Realignment legislation, which was designed to reduce the State’s prison population by shifting responsibility for nonviolent convictions from state prisons to county jail and probation. The analysis, however, doesn’t attribute the City’s rise in crime to Realignment, but rather to other factors, based on Federal Bureau of Investigation research.

According to the report, “There are several of these factors that could explain the rise since 2011 in San Francisco. Demographically, San Francisco is one of the fastest growing cities in California, increasing its already high level of population density…there is large and growing number of commuters that serve to swell the daytime population by an estimated 162,455 people during the work week. This large flux of people necessarily increases the number of crimes being reported as a simple function of population size. If San Francisco’s crime rate were based on the estimated daytime population of 951,627 people, its crime rate would decline by 11 percent. There have also been reports of increasing income inequality within the San Francisco metropolitan area. San Francisco has the nation’s highest level of income inequality. Inequality over a sustained period of time has been linked to crime rates by several studies, although the strength of such a relationship has varied. There is also the possibility of simple random fluctuations in crime rates that have existed since crime rates have been computed. Just as crime rates went up for two years, they have once again declined.”

According to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office 2015 Annual Report, 89 percent of individuals the DA charged with a felony were convicted – up from 82 percent in 2014 – 82 percent accused of homicide were sentenced – a decline from 91 percent in 2014 – and 100 percent of those arraigned for a gang felony crime were imprisoned, the same rate as the previous year.  There was a 37 percent increase in the number of gang cases reviewed by the DA between 2014 and 2015. The DA evaluated a total of 4,418 felonies cases in 2015, and took action on 3,301. The DA’s 2015 assault cases increased by 57 from the prior year, with 133 more indictments for automobile burglaries.

The DA’s 2015 Annual Report emphasizes that San Francisco has a deficit in mental health services, stating that “Eighty percent of all police calls involve mental health issues. And yet, we continue to run a 120-day average wait time for mental health beds through our Behavioral Health Court. Simply put, while our needs for community-based mental health treatment continue to soar, our in-custody services are increasingly insufficient.”

The DA’s Office supported the 2015 Board of Supervisors decision to not fund the construction of a new jail, and instead advocated for more mental health treatment resources. The Office’s annual report data indicates that 64 percent of those jailed in the United States have mental health problems; roughly 40 percent of those in San Francisco County Jail need psychological care. The DA also maintains that according to 2015 data, 50 percent of the City’s jail cells were vacant.

A June San Francisco Examiner article explored various potential causes of the rise in crime and decline in arrests, including a reported shortage of police officers due to retirements, as well as District Attorney’s policies that limit drug-related criminal prosecutions.

This month, voters will decide on Proposition R, a ballot measure put forth by Supervisor Scott Wiener – who is running for State Senate – and supported by Supervisors Malia Cohen, Katy Tang and Mark Farrell. Under the proposition, a Neighborhood Crime Unit would be created as early as next year, when police staffing is geared to swell. Three percent of the police force would be assigned to parts of the City where property crimes are pervasive, and would be responsible for both 911 and 311 calls in those areas.