In her campaign’s first ad, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins rattles off steps she’s taken to address the fentanyl crisis in San Francisco, including increasing punishments for “dealing drugs near our schools.”
“I won’t stop working,” Jenkins says, “until people stop dying.”
Jenkins has put special charges on the table for drug dealing near schools. But in the two months since she announced her plans, she only charged those school-zone sentencing enhancements in two cases, according to a data analysis by The Standard. This is despite her office appearing to have numerous potential opportunities to do so.
The new analysis reveals a disconnect between the messaging Jenkins presents to voters and the charges her office actually files.
Since Mayor London Breed appointed her in July, Jenkins and other officials close to the mayor have made combating drug dealing their top issue.
The tougher punishments for dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school were among a suite of policies Jenkins revealed at the beginning of August. She presented the policies as a course correction from her predecessor, recalled progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
At the same time, critics doubt that filing the enhancements would deter drug dealing near schools and worry that they could be used disproportionately against people of color, which has happened in the past. Research has also shown that making punishments harsher does little to prevent crime.
Under California law, prosecutors can add three to five years to a prison sentence for a person caught selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school. The statute requires that the violation occur during school hours, or at any time when minors are on campus.
In an email, a spokesperson for Jenkins, Randy Quezada, pointed to the school-hours restriction as the reason for the office only charging two enhancements. Quezada said there were only a limited number of cases in which the office could “prove beyond a reasonable doubt” sales occurred during those hours.
“If we are able to charge a school enhancement, we will,” Quezada told The Standard.
However, data shows that dozens of offenses have occurred within school zones during school hours.
Police made arrests in at least 35 drug-dealing incidents that took place during school hours within 1,000 feet of a school in the first month and a half since the school year started on Aug. 17, according to The Standard’s analysis of police data. The analysis assumed students were on campus between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays and is likely an undercount as many arrests are not clearly categorized as drug-dealing crimes in the data.
At least 20 of those arrests occurred near Tenderloin Community School, a public elementary school on Turk Street, but Jenkins’ office did not file school-zone enhancements in those cases for being near the campus.
Paul Lister, the school’s principal, said the drug crisis is so bad around his campus that some parents are afraid to send their kids to school. While the drug dealing mostly happens a block up on Eddy Street, Lister said Elm Street alley behind the school is riddled with feces, needles and tents.
“It prevents us from feeling comfortable,” Lister said. “It makes some families skip out on school if they can’t get anyone to escort their children.”
Both of the alleged drug dealers facing school-zone enhancements were arrested near De Marillac Academy, a tuition-free Catholic private school on Golden Gate Avenue.
All 10 of the top locations where police made drug-dealing arrests in roughly the past year also lie within school zones or less than two blocks away.
Pressed further about why Jenkins filed just two school-zone enhancements amid dozens of potential opportunities, Quezada explained that the stepped-up charges are simply an “additional tool” for prosecutors. The DA’s office prioritizes filing felony narcotics sales and possession-with-intent-to-sell as the primary charges, Quezada said.
Jenkins did file felony drug dealing charges in the vast majority of the 35 cases. Her filing rate for all felony narcotics cases citywide in the first five weeks of school was also 88%, compared with Boudin’s 77% rate for all of 2021, according to data from the DA’s office.
Quezada also pointed out that prosecutors depend on police for help knowing when a dealer is arrested near a school.
“Intake attorneys review numerous cases daily and rely on police reports proactively indicating that the arrest was made within a school zone when assessing the possible addition of school enhancements,” he said.
Indeed, SF police Chief Bill Scott acknowledged at an Oct. 5 press conference with the DA and Breed that his officers needed to give Jenkins the “ammunition that she needs to prosecute and get those enhancements filed.”
Scott indicated he was confident Jenkins would file enhancements when given the opportunity.
“Of course, we have to make the arrests, and we have to write the reports,” Scott said.
There are no indications that Jenkins is declining to file school-zone enhancements presented to her office by police.
The department only booked two people on school-zone enhancements from Aug. 1 to Sept. 25—the same number Jenkins filed.
Still, the district attorney has the discretion to file charges that police do not present to the office, so long as the arrest is made in the first place.
Jenkins electing to file school-zone enhancements at all, even if they’re rarely used, does signal a shift away from the prior administration. However, the notion that she’s dramatically changed the punishment of drug dealing near schools compared to Boudin is not borne out by the data—at least so far.
In the two and a half years before his recall, data shows Boudin did not charge any school-zone enhancements. He banned charging some sentencing enhancements as a prosecutor who sought to use incarceration as a last resort. The pandemic also shuttered schools for large portions of Boudin’s tenure as district attorney.
Boudin’s predecessor, George Gascon, used school-zone enhancements occasionally. He filed seven such enhancements in 2019 and six in 2018.
For criminal justice reformers, it’s not necessarily bad that Jenkins is not regularly filing school-zone enhancements.
Doug Welch, who oversees felony cases for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, said Jenkins’ new policy shouldn’t be considered a solution to the drug crisis.
“They don’t reduce demand, they don’t reduce addiction, they don’t reduce supply,” Welch argued. “I don’t see it as at all effective.”
Welch also recalled how previous efforts to increase punishments for drug dealers have spelled trouble for authorities in San Francisco.
In 2013 and 2015, San Francisco police teamed up with federal prosecutors to round up drug dealers in an initiative known as “Operation Safe Schools.”
All 37 of the suspects arrested faced a similar charge to the one Jenkins is threatening to file against suspects for dealing within 1,000 feet of schools.
The problem was that all 37 of the suspects were Black, leading the ACLU of Northern California to sue the city alleging racially selective enforcement.
The city ultimately settled the case for $225,000.
“There is no reason to think that that would not be repeated this time,” Welch said.
Studies in multiple cities have found school-zone drug-dealing enhancements were used more harshly against people of color than their white counterparts.
Denser neighborhoods, which are typically more racially diverse than suburban enclaves, have more schools, so the odds that any given location falls into a school zone increases. With so many drug-dealing arrests taking place within blocks of a school, police and prosecutors get to choose who they want to convict with the enhancement.
Aria Golestani, a research fellow at Northeastern University, studied the enhancement in Nashville and found prosecutors were more likely to eventually drop the charge against white people, but convict Black people of the enhancement.
“The bottom line is the discretionary enhancement created two different plea bargaining structures that exacerbated racially disparate outcomes,” Golestani said.
More generally, independent experts are split on whether such enhancements are effective.
Erica Freer, a professor at California State University San Marcos found that the charging school-zone enhancements deterred some drug crimes near schools in Los Angeles.
“For each of those drug crimes you’re reducing, that’s less exposure around kids,” Freer said.
But another recent study conducted by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Duke University found school zones only deterred crime when there was a moderate chance police would make an arrest, compared to when there was a low or high probability of getting caught.
Research shows the best way for law enforcement to prevent crime is to quickly apprehend lawbreakers and establish a pattern of consistent punishment, said Ryken Grattet, a professor at University of California Davis. Lengthening the sentence itself, however, does little to deter offending, he added.
“I think [Jenkins is] trying to appeal to a citizenry, an electorate, that is kind of fed up with the perception that the city has rampant disorder,” Grattet said.
“If this kind of political rhetoric is effective in a city like San Francisco,” he continued, “then it shows how paper thin the commitment … the agenda for reform and the move away from incarceration [is].”
Matthew Crane contributed additional research for this story.