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Criminal Justice

New Head of Special SF Court Keeps the Faith on Alternatives to Prison

Written by David SjostedtPublished Aug. 24, 2022 • 3:15pm
Melanie Kushnir-Pappalardo poses for a portrait outside her new office, the Civic Center Courthouse building at 400 McAllister in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, August 24, 2022. As the new director of drug court, Kushnir wants to create a diversion program for undocumented people and take a more creative approach to the role. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

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Melanie Kushnir-Pappalardo assumed the role of director of the city’s collaborative courts this month, and has big ambitions for using alternative sentencing to keep the public safe while rehabilitating criminal defendants.   

In an interview, Kushnir-Pappalardo said she wants to amplify the voice of victims in court while using diversion to rehabilitate hard-to-reach populations such as undocumented immigrants, elders and women. Kushnir-Pappalardo previously served as deputy chief of victim services at the District Attorney’s Office, and prior to that as a social worker in the city’s jails. 

Collaborative courts are a form of sentencing alternative where a judge, an assistant district attorney, a public defender and a case manager gather to create a treatment plan for people accused of crimes and ostensibly hold them accountable to it. 

The use of diversion in San Francisco has grown in recent years alongside court decisions that placed restrictions on the use of bail and pretrial detention, as well as changing attitudes about criminal justice. 

“When somebody graduates collaborative court, everybody wins,” Kushnir-Pappalardo said. “It’s so much safer than just warehousing people.” 

Critics of recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin, including current District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, alleged that he over-referred people to the city’s collaborative court system, including serious offenders and drug dealers who they said were ill-suited for alternatives like drug court.  

The Standard sat down with Kushnir-Pappalardo to address the controversies over alternative sentencing and to better understand how she believes it could be improved. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your goals for the collaborative courts?

My biggest goal is to increase public safety and support the defendant in getting the services they need to stop the behaviors that landed them in custody in the first place.

There’s never been a victim service advocate in the collaboration. I think that would be huge because we always want the voice of the victim as well. Having the victim in the loop is not only part of their Marsy’s right to know what’s going on legally, but also gives them a sense of control and power because when you’re victimized that’s taken away from you in that moment.

Ideally, a clinical social worker who has the skill set to support the victim, listen to their needs, and wishes, and desires and make sure they’re incorporated, would be a part of our collaboration.

Melanie Kushnir-Pappalardo chats with The Standard while walking around her new office, the Civic Center Courthouse building at 400 McAllister in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, August 24, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

It’s called the collaborative courts, but oftentimes the participating members are working at cross purposes. How can we have a DA who is outspoken about being tough on crime while also being able to collaborate with the public defender in these situations?

Well, being tough on crime doesn’t mean locking people up. It means holding people accountable.  

People can sit in jail, do time and get out. No problem. Is that holding people accountable or being tough on crime? 

Maybe to some folks. 

But to me, the hard work is holding people accountable and so much more. [In collaborative court] we’re asking folks to get treatment, to take their meds, to stop using drugs, which they may not be ready to do. We’re telling them to be ready and go to a residential program when they don’t necessarily want to.

It’s so much more difficult to go through a collaborative court than it is to sit in jail. Being in a collaborative court doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. If you keep messing up, you’re going back to jail. The new DA absolutely supports the collaborative courts.

Are there any groups that you could better serve in these courts? 

There are three groups that I would like to create more programming for and focus on.

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Folks who are undocumented and are involved in criminal activity, addressing that giant issue. People talk about them all the time and there are ways to solve it. I think being able to do specific outreach to those folks would be very helpful. 

Creating a court specific to women and their needs. A huge amount of women who are justice-involved have complex trauma histories. If there’s something we could do specifically to address their needs and not put them with male offenders as well—who they may or may not know from outside or the streets—can offer a much safer space for these women to heal and address their issues.

The final group is elders. With baby boomers, we’re seeing a much older population than we historically saw. We’ll see folks get arrested who are in their 70s or 80s and have never been arrested before in their lives. Criminal careers don’t typically start in the golden years. So when you have a 75-year-old who suddenly gets arrested with no criminal history, more often than not there’s a brain disease like dementia or Alzheimer’s. They need the correct level of care. I plan to work to support those folks into, ideally, not even coming into jail if they’re arrested.

The Polk Street Annex of the San Francisco Superior Court houses trials for those cited for drug and paraphernalia possession in San Francisco, California, on Thursday, July 28, 2022. | Don Feria for the Standard

When DA Brooke Jenkins came into office, one of the first things she did was announce a policy change directed at ensuring that drug dealers don’t end up in drug court. Was this an issue? 

The DA is correct in that drug court is for people with substance use disorders. Some people with substance use disorders do deal or hold drugs to support their habits. And any sort of court for dealers does not exist. But that goes back to sort of the court I’d like to create for folks who are not documented. 

From your perspective, what are some of the drivers that cause people to fall out of collaborative courts and diversion programs?

Addiction is a very tough disease and chronic mental illness is also very, very tough. We want people to do what they need to do to stay well and be stable. But it’s asking a lot.

Who hasn’t had an ear infection or strep throat and gone to the doctor who gave them antibiotics and said, “don’t stop when you feel better. Take it until the whole bottle is gone.” And you still stopped taking it before the whole bottle is gone because you feel better.

Everyone struggles, to some degree, with a medication compliance issue. And the same is true for people with mental illness. If it’s someone who is justice-involved, who does have serious mental illness and isn’t taking meds, there is a greater cost to public safety than if you don’t take your antibiotics, right? 

But forcing medication is hard and it’s not something I necessarily want to do.

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David Sjostedt can be reached at [email protected]




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