Dope dealers in San Francisco now run the risk of harsher penalties and more time behind bars—even before trial—under a plan new District Attorney Brooke Jenkins laid out for addressing the deadly fentanyl crisis.
Jenkins announced a three-part policy Wednesday intended to disrupt the flow of business for dealers who are cycling in and out of jail. The policy includes giving prosecutors the option to argue that the most prolific drug dealers should be held in jail ahead of trial, as well as the discretion to seek longer sentences by filing enhancements against dealers arrested near schools.
Jenkins unveiled her policy on the same day she announced her decision to revoke pending misdemeanor plea offers in more than 30 drug dealing cases that were made under her predecessor, Chesa Boudin, and which she deemed too lenient. The decision was the outcome of a review of all open drug cases Jenkins ordered on her first day in office last month.
“We have to send a strong message that if people choose to sell this lethal drug in our city, that they will be held accountable,” Jenkins said at a press conference inside her Potrero Hill office on Wednesday morning. “It is not progressive to allow our residents to die out on our streets... It does not further reform or the reform movement to allow repeat offenders to continuously offend without any consequence.”
Jenkins’ announcement represents a shift for an office that sought to rely as little as possible on incarceration under Boudin, a former public defender and poster child in the movement of progressive prosecutors who won office in recent years amid a national push for racial justice.
Since Mayor London Breed swore her into office in July to succeed Boudin after voters ousted him a month prior, Jenkins has made taking on drug dealing and cleaning up the Tenderloin her top issue. She quit Boudin’s office late last year to become a spokesperson for the campaign to recall him.
Anticipating criticism that she is restarting the failed War on Drugs, Jenkins said her policy focuses only on drug dealers and not users. She said her tougher approach is warranted given the lethality of fentanyl, arguing that “we are in a different state of affairs than we were many years ago.” The city’s overdose death toll has surged as high as 711 in one recent year.
Jenkins will allow her prosecutors to seek pretrial detention against drug dealers who are repeat offenders or in otherwise extreme cases involving fentanyl, she said. The option is normally reserved for those accused of the most serious and violent crimes under Boudin. Jenkins said her office will argue that prolific fentanyl dealers pose a significant public safety risk.
Jenkins is also giving her office the option to charge defendants with an enhancement that could add years to their sentence if they were arrested selling narcotics within 1,000 feet of a school. She said the policy is needed to protect children walking by dealers on the way to school.
The last prong of the policy limits the discretion her office has to send drug dealers to collaborative court, where they can access housing services as well as drug treatment and potentially avoid a conviction. Jenkins said the previous administration “abused” the court by sending dealers there who were arrested with more than five grams of fentanyl.
Such referrals will no longer be made by the office, she said.
While the court is intended to connect low-level offenders to resources, Jenkins said the most “egregious” of the referrals made under Boudin involved a repeat offender arrested with more than 500 grams of fentanyl for sale.
Jenkins said Boudin offered defendants too many lenient plea offers. She cited a report by The Standard that Boudin convicted three defendants of felony drug dealing—and no felony convictions specifically for dealing fentanyl—in all of 2021. (Boudin has said state law required him to consider immigration consequences of such a conviction for undocumented dealers).
Jenkins plans to proceed with felony charges against the defendants whose plea offers she decided to revoke and will seek jail time, she said.
Jenkins’ announcement prompted Public Defender Mano Raju to issue a statement condemning her policies as “regressive.” He said jailing suspected dealers who are also addicts could lead to drug overdoses and that tacking on sentencing enhancement will not disrupt the drug crisis.
“If District Attorney Jenkins truly wants to address the issues facing our city, she should not be relying on outdated and politically expedient soundbites about harsher enforcement,” Raju said. “Fifty years of evidence from the War on Drugs have shown that these punitive practices have not prevented recidivism nor improved community health and safety.”
By seeking to detain more people, Jenkins may also run up against perennial staffing issues in the Sheriff’s Department and a lack of space in the jails.
Jenkins unveiled her strategy two weeks after SFPD Chief Bill Scott announced that his officers would also ramp up enforcement to crack down on visible drug markets on the streets by focusing on drug users as well as dealers. Scott ordered police to begin citing people for having pipes and other drug paraphernalia and arresting those who failed to show up in court or violated the terms of their release.
Jenkins has yet to indicate she would begin charging those possession cases despite taking steps on her own to increase consequences for dealers.
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]