Let’s Shine a Light on Our Mysterious Judges

By Joel P. Engardio

There are 52 superior court judges serving San Francisco. They are elected. Yet most voters have never heard of them. The judiciary shouldn’t be a mysterious Star Chamber. If you care about courtroom outcomes, it’s important to know who the judges are when they appear on the ballot. Join the Court Watch program at Stop Crime SF to get informed. I help lead the group.

Why should we care who the judges are? Consider this recent San Francisco Chronicle headline: “Half of people released from SF jail before trial were accused of a new crime while free.”

This headline is jarring to read. And there’s a lot to unpack in the accompanying article.

Here’s what you need to know:

  1. A study by the California Policy Lab looked at the number of suspects who committed a new crime after they were released by San Francisco judges to await trial on the original crime. The study wanted to gauge the effectiveness of a risk assessment tool used by judges. Typically, judges hear arguments from the public defender and the district attorney about whether a suspect should be released or held before trial. Judges also get a recommendation from the Public Safety Assessment — an algorithmic tool that measures a suspect’s risk of committing a new crime. In San Francisco, 73 percent of judges detained the suspect pre-trial when the algorithm suggested it. But 27 percent did not.
  2. The California Policy Lab study looked at re-offenses from 2016 to 2019. But two high-profile cases this year give added relevance to the report:
    — The suspect who stabbed two Asian seniors as they waited for a downtown bus in May had recently completed a diversion program for an earlier assault charge.
    — The suspect who stabbed a 94-year-old Asian woman as she walked outside her Lower Nob Hill home in June had been released by Judge Richard Darwin weeks earlier. The suspect was facing burglary charges and Judge Darwin put him back on the street with an ankle monitor despite an extensive criminal history and a request by the district attorney’s office to keep him in custody.
  3. When a suspect is released before trial, they can be put in a pre-trial diversion program. This helps reduce the jail population and gives people a chance for rehabilitation, which is a good goal. But Supervisor Catherine Stefani told ABC-7 News she doesn’t have confidence in the success rate reported by San Francisco’s Pretrial Diversion Project. “They are masking what is actually happening,” she said. “The data wasn’t matching what we were seeing out on the streets.” The Pretrial Diversion Project only counts re-offenses within San Francisco during a four-month period. The California Policy Lab study, however, counted all new crimes committed regardless of location and time. That’s why the numbers posted by the Pretrial Diversion Project didn’t match. Stefani was the only supervisor to vote against renewing the Pretrial Diversion Project’s contract. She plans to introduce legislation to ensure reoffense rates include all crimes committed. Diversion programs are not the problem. They are preferable to jail and help people turn their lives around. It’s important to measure every program for success so we can support the ones that work best.

Another Mystery: Why Did Judge Roeca Dismiss Case Against Man Who Grabbed Girl?

Judge Russell Roeca and suspect Bill Gene Hobbs.

The story about a 15-year-old girl who was followed and grabbed on West Portal Avenue in San Francisco and the judge who dismissed all charges against the suspect raises many unanswered questions.

Why did Judge Russell Roeca drop the child molestation and battery charges? Why did Judge Roeca end a stay-away order meant to protect the girl from the 6'4 and 210 pound man with “EVIL” tattooed on his fingers? Why was the child molestation charge filed as a misdemeanor and not a felony?

Even longtime San Francisco Chronicle reporter Heather Knight couldn’t get answers to those questions.

“So why did this happen? Figuring out the answer proved difficult, a common experience for journalists and residents alike when it comes to San Francisco’s opaque criminal justice system,” Knight said in her story about the case.

There were other victims before the 15-year-old girl. Knight reported the same suspect stripped naked and ran after a woman walking her dog in Glen Canyon. The woman was able to escape.

The suspect, Bill Gene Hobbs, has faced six criminal cases in San Francisco since 2017 with charges that include false imprisonment and battery. Each time, judges dismissed the cases.

Knight’s article quoted a public defender who said Hobbs was “incompetent to stand trial” but wasn’t able to be placed in a treatment facility. Knight also quoted a former prosecutor who said that Hobbs could have been compelled to get treatment if the child molestation was charged as a felony instead of a misdemeanor. Instead, Hobbs is now being held in Ventura County for another crime.

This case further demonstrates why stronger conservatorship laws are needed to give severely mentally ill people the treatment they need before they hurt others. Turning jails into de facto mental institutions is not a solution and neither is letting people go without treatment.

Judge Roeca wouldn’t comment to the Chronicle on why he dropped the child molestation charges. The father of the girl who was grabbed, Blaise Zerega, wrote a letter to Judge Roeca seeking an explanation. There hasn’t been a reply.

Judge Roeca was appointed to the San Francisco Superior Court by Governor Newsom in August 2020. Roeca is scheduled to face voters in 2022. But judges are often automatically re-elected. While judges are supposed to be voted on every six years, they do not appear on the ballot if no one runs against them.

There are 52 superior court judges serving San Francisco. Most voters have no clue who they are. I help lead a group called Stop Crime SF. We have a Court Watch program to educate people. Join to get informed.

Blaise Zerega, the father of the girl who was grabbed, contacted Stop Crime SF for help in telling his story. Our Court Reporter program connected him with local journalists. Learn more about Stop Crime SF and click here to join.

Originally published at https://engardio.com on July 17, 2021.

Forward-thinking + pragmatic Democrat, civil liberties advocate, award-winning journalist, Westside SF homeowner. My local views at www.engardio.com/issues