By Peter Fortune
“Nobody likes a whiner. If you are going to complain, complain to someone who can do something about it.”
My mother recited these pithy words to me growing up — no doubt, far too often, but they eventually stuck. These words embody the essence of why I jumped at the chance to participate in Court Watch.
I am gravely concerned about the past and ongoing epidemic of auto burglaries in our city. I’ve been trying to determine whether any of three categories of our public servants — the San Francisco Police Department, the District Attorney, or the judges — might have some greater responsibility for not reigning in these criminals. Many say it’s the judges, who, the criminals well know, typically and quickly send them back out on the streets with little or no bail, or typically impose very light punishments for convictions. Some blame the DA for supposedly acquiescing in too many, too-soft plea deals, rather than taking criminals to trial. And some say the SFPD makes far too few arrests, though the SFPD clearly does not have nearly enough officers to adequately police all the neighborhoods where these criminals attack.
Court Watch focuses on the judges
Consider the judges who are suspected (1) of sending so many auto burglars (and other criminals) back out on the streets while awaiting trial and/or (2) of being far too lenient in sentencing them. Court Watch populates courtrooms with community members whose mere presence tells the judge that the community will not tolerate their issuing so many “get-out-of-jail-free” cards or their imposing light punishments for these crimes. The Assistant District Attorney (ADA) signals to the judge that community members will be or are in the courtroom for a defendant’s hearing, and judges now know why we are there.
So, instead of my whining about too-lenient judges, Court Watch gives me opportunities to “complain to someone who can do something” about trying to deter criminals from burglarizing vehicles. To me, my presence in courtrooms is a way of vividly but tacitly complaining to judges that they haven’t been tough enough on these criminals.
My experience with Court Watch
I am a new Court Watcher, but at least twice so far, we have had success. The first time I volunteered, four of us were ready to show up in the courtroom. But before the hearing and in the judge’s chambers the ADA told the judge, and the defendant’s attorney, that four members of the community would be present to watch what the judge does with the defendant. Merely giving that notice to the judge and the defense attorney produced a positive result: the plea/offer discussion immediately increased from one year to two years’ incarceration; the hearing was continued to a new date; and we did not have to show up in the courtroom.
My second successful Court Watch was at a hearing for a 20-year career criminal who has a drug problem and wanted Judge Jeffrey Ross to give him another chance to stay out of prison. Judge Ross had initially deferred prison and allowed him to enter a drug rehab program, with the requirement that if he didn’t like that particular program, he had to call either his attorney or his probation officer to get into another program. But he did neither when he left the program after a just few days. He was finally found and arrested over a month later.
For the hearing we attended Judge Ross had to decide whether to give this defendant another chance at drug rehab, or to sentence him to six years in prison. After arguments by the ADA and defense attorney, we listened to Judge Ross impose a six-year prison sentence.
Bonus after the hearing: Judge Ross came off the bench, introduced himself to us, and explained to us why he makes decisions like the one he had just made — he has to be firmly convinced that the defendant has a realistic chance of succeeding in whatever the judge sentences him to, if it’s not jail or prison. The judge clearly knew why we were there.
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