Police say 'bargain basement' bail attracts drug dealers Competitive pricing urged on San Francisco judges


SAN FRANCISCO -- Lenient bail decisions by San Francisco judges lure crack dealers to the city and plague residents with revolving-door justice, the police and prosecutors say.

They called on the courts to increase the bail that suspects must post to be released from custody. The city generally has the lowest bail schedule in the San Francisco Bay area, which critics contend makes the city a magnet for lawbreakers.

"We keep arresting some of these same subjects over and over, and we do see this infusion of out-of-town dope dealers who find it far less risky to deal narcotics in San Francisco than in other cities," said Capt. Dennis Martel of the San Francisco Police.

Said Supervisor Jose Medina: "We are a bargain basement when it comes to bail."

The presiding judge of the Municipal Court said she's heard similar complaints in discussions with community groups since she took over the court's leadership post last summer. Judge Donna Little said, however, that individual judges decide bail on a case-by-case basis.

"We look at several issues," she said. "Do they have a prior record? How long ago since their last arrest? Was there violence or weapons involved?"

Privately, other judges grumbled that they weren't given the courtesy of an invitation to appear at the hearing called by Supervisor Jose Medina.

Little, however, struck a conciliatory tone, saying she intends to ask her colleagues to focus specifically on crack.

Medina vowed to step up pressure on the courts, and plans to introduce a nonbinding measure to the full Board of Supervisors' meeting Tuesday that would put the supervisors and mayor on (( record supporting higher bail for some drug offenses.

"We are a bargain basement when it comes to bail," he said.

The bail schedule, set by the judiciary, is used as a guideline for judges when a defendant first appears in court.

In San Francisco the bail schedule calls for a bail of $2,500 for each count of crack cocaine sale and possession, although judges are free to set either more or less bail.

In Alameda County, for the same offenses, the schedule calls for a bail of $20,000. In Santa Clara County, it is $15,000. In Contra Costa County, it is $30,000.

"A lot of the narcotics dealers that we would encounter even on the larger-scale deals say they would much rather do the deal in San Francisco than outside the county," police Capt. Greg Suhr said.

Law enforcement authorities said the benefit of forcing suspects to post higher bail in San Francisco would be immediate.

Not everyone agrees. In an interview, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Brown ripped the critics of the status quo, calling their accusations politically expedient.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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