On Wednesday, Betty Renee Ricks stood inside San Francisco County Jail and told 40 inmates how she was first prostituted at age 12, and how one pimp broke her teeth, beat her with hangers until she bled and poured Brut cologne into her wounds.
“My name was bitch,” she said. “That’s all I knew.”
The men, all charged with violent offenses, listened for an hour, jotting down on worksheets the crimes perpetrated against Ricks. The point was to help them understand how their own crimes had affected victims.
The exercise was part of a program based on a practice known as restorative justice, which brings together offenders, victims and community members to discuss the impact of a crime and help repair the damage through accountability and rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Restorative justice has long had proponents in some corners of the criminal justice system, but it is now gaining prominence in an unlikely forum: the San Francisco district attorney’s race.
Often, candidates for a county’s top law enforcement office compete to show who can be toughest on crime. But San Francisco has a history of freethinking district attorneys — Terence Hallinan, who held the office from 1996 to 2004, advocated the legalization of marijuana and prostitution — and restorative justice has become a buzzword in this year’s five-way race.
David Onek, a lawyer, a former police commissioner and founder of the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, has led the charge, making incarceration alternatives and restorative justice the centerpiece of his campaign.
“Do you know what happens when you’re locked up?” he said. “You sleep all day and watch daytime TV. You’re watching Jerry Springer, and someone feeds you three hot meals a day. Admitting what you did, confronting your actions, hearing from a victim about the impact that things have had on them, that’s tough.”
Onek said he would start by using restorative justice techniques broadly in the district attorney’s juvenile division, in an attempt to steer young offenders away from jail.
George Gascón, the former police chief who was appointed district attorney in January when his predecessor, Kamala Harris, ascended to state attorney general, has embraced the cause as well. That has raised some eyebrows, as Gascón, the presumptive favorite in the race, is considered to be well to the right on San Francisco’s left-leaning political spectrum.
Gascón noted in a recent interview that his office already oversees restorative programs like “neighborhood courts,” where victims and community members can weigh in on consequences for low-level offenders.
A third candidate, Sharmin Bock, a 22-year Alameda County prosecutor, is also promoting the concept.
The sudden interest in what critics say amounts to a “soft on crime” approach is partly driven by economics. On Oct. 1, California’s criminal justice system will be realigned, transferring responsibility for low-level offenders from the state to the counties, many of which already have overcrowded jails.
“One of the things that’s compelling this is absolute material necessity,” said Ken Walsh, a professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State University. “When resources are not there, you are forced to do things differently.”
The hope that new approaches can succeed in rehabilitating offenders and healing victims and their communities is part of the dynamic, too. Restorative justice proponents say traditional punishment is clearly failing on those fronts.
Gascón said budget realities would force the city to stop sweeping the crime problem under the rug by simply locking up offenders, who often come from poor neighborhoods. “The social impact has been resonating with some for many years, but perhaps it remained invisible to many because we could afford it,” Gascón said. “Now we can’t afford it anymore.”
None of the candidates have suggested mediations with victims or alternatives to prison for the most serious crimes.. Still, Bock said she believes the basic principles could be used even with prisoners.
“There’s not a downside to helping offenders understand their role in the cycle of violence and how to break it,” she said, describing restorative justice as a way of “improving the emotional existence and ethical awareness” of dangerous offenders.
That kind of language does not go far with two of the other candidates for district attorney.
“We don’t need a D.A. that’s a social worker,” said Vu Trinh, a veteran Orange County defense lawyer. “The district attorney should be focused on enforcing laws first. When I’m talking about restorative justice, I’m talking about victims’ rights.”
Bill Fazio, a defense lawyer who also worked as a prosecutor in the San Francisco district attorney’s office for 20 years, said he supports restorative justice, but that mediations between victims and perpetrators have limited effectiveness in a city as diverse as San Francisco.
“A 15-year-old gangbanger who’s been smashing car windows since he was 10 isn’t going to care about sitting in a room with some housewife from Pacific Heights,” he said. “If you’ve got a gangbanger who’s posting signs testifying to the prowess of his gang in a community that’s plagued with gang violence, he’s not going to get much sympathy.”
Walsh agreed that the economic disparities in various parts of San Francisco present challenges.
“When you try to implement restorative justice in tougher neighborhoods, it’s hard because nobody is thinking about community when they’re trying to meet their own necessities first,” he said.
Indeed, many supporters of the concept are cautious about its potential.
“They’re going to package it in a way that sounds like win-win-win all the way around, but the implementation is key here,” said William Siffermann, chief of juvenile probation for San Francisco. “The whole thing of restorative justice is that it’s a buzzword that sounds great. It’s not a program, but you can build programs around that philosophy.”
Resolve to Stop the Violence Project, a San Francisco Sheriff’s Department effort that was started in 1997, is one such program. Part of it involves Ricks, the one-time prostituted child, who is now a social worker in San Francisco. She has been sharing her story with violent offenders for 12 years, acting as a surrogate victim, trying to educate perpetrators so their actual victims don’t have to.
“We do this thing called destruction cycle where we can actually plug in acts of violence that we’ve committed,” said Eric Martin, 32, who is serving a five-month sentence for domestic violence. “It can kind of give us an overview of exactly how that’s affected other people and where that anger and violence is coming from inside.”
Jaramie Aiken, 37, has attended the program for more than a year while locked up on an attempted-murder charge. He said it took months before he bought into the classes, but that now he sees them as his only chance to make it after his release.
“I’m 37, and since I was 15 I’ve lived a life of violence,” he said. “I’ve known my violent self longer than I’ve known my authentic self. My biggest fear now is that I want to get enough information in here before I leave, to save my life on the street.”