San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project: Divesting from law enforcement and investing in community

Across the country, advocates are urging leadership to defund police and invest in communities, which is exactly what one California agency has been doing for more than 40 years.

David Mauroff is the CEO of San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, an independent, nonprofit organization founded in 1976 that has goals of decreasing jail populations and recidivism and developing community partnerships.

The agency is largely funded through the City’s General Fund and San Francisco Sheriff’s Office, making it a real-world example of what that “defund” rallying cry could look like.

“Most of our funding comes directly from the Sheriff’s Office, so this is a situation where a law enforcement agency is funding a community-based organization with our own Board of Directors,” Mauroff emphasized. “We’re a perfect example of how you can divest from law enforcement and invest in community.”

San Francisco is often perceived as a liberal haven of progress, but Mauroff said there’s nothing unique about the city that allows their endeavors to work there, as opposed to anywhere else in the country.

“What we are doing is based on a strategic approach. There are nuances around that approach in every different community, but our organization is rooted in fundamental principles of effective pretrial services. We’re measured by failures to appear and public safety, just like every other jurisdiction across the country,” Mauroff said. “the pretrial model that we have in San Francisco is a model that can be replicated across the country.”

With a comprehensive range of services including neighborhood courts, targeted diversion programs, in-custody programs  and courtroom support, Mauroff said their agency serves an important role within San Francisco’s justice system.

“We serve as a check and balance,” he said. “And it’s important we come at that from an independent lens, and also a community-based lens.”

One of their main focuses, Mauroff said, is finding positive ways to keep defendants out of jails that encourage rehabilitation and improve the community. For example, since 2016, more than 830 cases were adjudicated through the Neighborhood Courts Program, which is run in partnership with the District Attorney’s Office and community members. The program gives residents the opportunity to resolve non-violent and misdemeanor crimes in local, neighborhood settings.

Mauroff said that program is a perfect example of unique ways the Pretrial Diversion Project works within communities to combat the prison industrial complex and focus on restorative justice. Other examples include Street Environmental Services – which allows people to do community service and neighborhood beautification projects in lieu of detention – and the new Primary Caregiver Diversion Project – which was initiated by the District Attorney and is aimed at keeping families intact and breaking the cycle of generational incarceration.

“Jail isn’t an optimal environment for rehabilitation, that belongs in the community. Pretrial is a presumed innocence space. So to lock anyone up during the phase of presumed innocence absent significant public safety concerns, is detrimental to their outcomes,” Mauroff said.

Rather, Mauroff said pretrial detention often has an adverse effect on the defendant’s likelihood of success and tends to increase their chance of recidivism.

In addition to being more connected to communities, Mauroff said his department’s freedom and flexibility has allowed them to adapt more efficiently in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he said their concerns were somewhat different than many other jurisdictions, who scrambled to figure out ways to get people out of jails to curb the spread of the virus.

“Reducing the jail population has been a concerted effort in San Francisco for a while, so that wasn’t our main concern when COVID hit, although we also knew that jails could be a viral hotspot,” he said.

Instead, Mauroff said it quickly became clear that San Francisco’s glaring lack of affordable housing would be the biggest threat to their clients during the pandemic.

“Because of COVID, a lot of [housing] services weren’t accepting new referrals or operating at all. But we knew we needed to keep our clients off the streets now more than ever because of the health concerns associated with the virus,” he said.

Running out of funding to house their clients, Mauroff said they rushed to find a solution. Thankfully their nonprofit model allowed them to apply for emergency funding through local foundations that they would not have been eligible for as a government agency.

“Initially, we were able to get a grant through Tipping Point, and within a week, and were able to extend clients staying where they were,” Mauroff said. “But, that money was going fast, so we were able to secure another round of funding through Tipping Point, but it became obvious that we needed something more sustainable.”

Mauroff said they then put together a joint proposal with the Public Defender and District Attorney’s offices to manage a block of hotel rooms through the generous support of the Adult Probation Department and Mayor’s Office. Within the month, they had a housing solution up and running – which will be operational at least through November.

“People were surprised we filled the rooms so quickly. If we had been a city agency, just the process of reclassifying employees and redeploying them would have been much slower,” Mauroff said. “We are more nimble and responsive as a community-based agency that’s used to working with less bureaucracy, fewer resources, and that’s able to get things done efficiently.”

The need for community-based solutions like SF Pretrial Diversion Project is a hot topic among leaders and activists pushing for reform in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the countless other Black and Brown people who have been killed or injured by police brutality.

While Mauroff said he does believe his agency can be used to push forward this conversation, the movement has also forced a reckoning within their department – and San Francisco as a whole – which has a Black population of just over 5 percent.

“Even though San Francisco is more liberal than a lot of places, some of our practices are not consistent with reform and best practices around the country,” Mauroff said. “We have alienated our African American community and it’s all related to how our housing, education and criminal justice policies have failed,”

Mauroff said though they have been working to create a more equitable justice system for decades, they still have a long way to go.

“From the perspective at SF Pretrial, the conversations surrounding George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have heightened our awareness and our ability to promote and advance racial equity and justice,” he said. “Across the board, I’ve seen it empower agencies and individuals to speak out in different ways, which I think is going to lead to more extensive reform.”

Although bail and jail reform was already making progress in San Francisco well before the pandemic, Mauroff said reforms done at the state level in response to COVID helped further their jail reduction efforts initially. But, he said, those same reforms eventually marked a step back.

“In early April, the California Judicial Council passed the Zero Bail ruling in response to COVID, which allowed more charges to be eligible for cite and release,” Mauroff said. “So that was a positive thing done statewide. But then in June, the Council voted and decided to rescind the Zero Bail order in the midst of a surge in positive cases and make it so individual jurisdictions had their own authority to keep it. San Francisco’s Superior Court decided to eliminate Zero Bail.”

Through previous reforms – particularly from the Humphrey and Buffin rulings – Mauroff said San Francisco has been operating on a precedent that favors release with no or very low financial conditions, which he said will continue regardless of the Zero Bail order.

“But that doesn’t negate the need for Zero Bail, which is why we are urging the courts to reinstate it,” he said.

Mauroff said they recently drafted a joint statement with the San Francisco Bar Association, Director of Jail Health Services, District Attorney, and Public Defender to reinforce the need for Zero Bail, in order to support social distancing in the jails and keep detainees and employees safe.

The pandemic has caused other challenges to Mauroff’s agency, particularly in regard to staffing and the logistics of social distancing. Specifically, Mauroff said COVID has put a halt to some of their most impactful programs – support groups.

“We haven’t been able to run any support groups since March,” Mauroff said. “We’ve had some clients that were engaged and successful in their support groups, and once they lost that contact and connection with our staff, their decision making wasn’t as positive and they’ve been caught up in some difficult situations.”

Overall, Mauroff said while the pandemic has undoubtedly brought hardship to their agency, he is pleased with their handling of the situation, which he said has not resulted in any substantial shift in their public safety  or failure to appear rates that meet and exceed industry standards.

“I think it’s a credit to our pretrial partners and system, it’s been a collaborative effort to maintain our levels. We just looked at the last quarter, and our failure to appear and safety rates have been consistent throughout this process,” Mauroff said, “Our staff deserve recognition for this success, as they have been working tirelessly and fearlessly throughout the pandemic.”

Throughout the nation, pretrial agencies have been able to push more reforms during the pandemic than perhaps ever before, including many of California’s more conservative jurisdictions who decided to keep the Zero Bail order in place.

“I believe in the face of crisis, people respond differently, and I’ve been happy to see jurisdictions responding by releasing more people,” Mauroff said. “I think it proves that you can reform the pretrial system, and it doesn’t have a negative impact on public safety. It makes me hopeful that we’re going to continue moving in a positive direction.”