Every San Franciscan knows that crime is rising, and that means there are more victims that need our support. The current system forces victims to navigate a complicated web of bureaucracy through multiple departments, and often without success. Survivors of domestic violence face even more challenges, as many cases aren’t charged or charges are reduced with little or no consequences, leaving victims and their children vulnerable.
Approximately 20,000 times per quarter, a person in San Francisco is a victim of crime, according to the San Francisco Police Department’s crime data. As high as this number is, it is probably an undercount, given that social scientists agree that about 40 percent of crimes are not reported. Further, only about 3,000 of the reported incidents result in arrests and charges are filed in fewer than 1,000 cases. This means that those victims who don’t have a case proceeding through the criminal justice system do not have the same kind of support, if any at all.
According to SFPD records, last year there were more than 93,000 victims of crime in San Francisco and only 10 percent were ever resolved through the criminal justice system. These victims are primarily women and people of color. In 2021, people of color were victims in 71 percent of aggravated assaults, 82 percent of robberies, 83 percent of homicides, and 64 percent of sexual assaults.
Proposition D will consolidate all the existing victims’ services into a new Office of Victim and Witness Rights and will establish a right to civil counsel for survivors of domestic violence. It will create a centralized place for all victims to receive protection and will eliminate the red tape to accessing financial, medical, and mental health services. The measure will provide critical legal support to survivors of domestic violence and their children to ensure they can obtain protective orders, child support or custody, housing assistance, and other legal assistance as needed.
Currently, there are more than half a dozen city departments that provide some services to crime victims, depending on whether charges are filed or the type of crime. Additionally, the bulk of victims’ services are at the back end of a lengthy law enforcement system, meaning you need an incident report, police report, arrest, investigation, and presentation of charges before your case naturally finds itself in the hands of victims’ advocates.
Services for victims of crime are sparse and spread over many departments. Outside the criminal justice system, there are some city departments that provide services to victims of crime. For example, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development oversees stipends to businesses that are broken into and burglarized, and the Human Rights Commission oversees assistance to victims of sexual assault and harassment.
This system forces victims and witnesses of crime already suffering from the emotional, physical and financial aftermath of a crime to navigate a complicated system through multiple departments, and many ultimately receive no support. The system is also centered around law enforcement, which makes many victims of crime uncomfortable and nervous to come forward. This new office will be outside of law enforcement and will meet victims and witnesses where they are.
Only about half of domestic violence cases in San Francisco are presented for prosecution, and only one-third of the cases presented are charged. This is especially troubling, given that the needs of domestic violence victims have been particularly acute since the start of the pandemic. Calls to local crisis lines have increased more than 40 percent and calls to the Cooperative Restraining Order Clinic increased by 166 percent. Even more troubling is that the turn away rate for victims seeking emergency shelter was 79 percent. In many of these cases, the perpetrator returns to the home where the victim lives, often with children, who are witnesses and victims of abuse as well.
Experts agree that in 99 percent of domestic violence cases, victims are subjected to economic abuse and coercive financial control, making it extremely difficult to pay for legal representation to help them and their children escape their abuser. Furthermore, domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness in our country and the direct cause for more than half our homeless women.
I recently heard the story of a domestic violence survivor in San Francisco that depicts the horror of those statistics. Claudia was in an abusive marriage for at least eight years after marrying her high school sweetheart. She suffered beatings at least twice a week and was admitted to the hospital while pregnant because of the abuse. Her husband called the police one day to report that she had hit him and she ended up spending five nights in jail. Charges were never filed, however, this allowed the husband to obtain a restraining order that kept her from her home and children. He also locked her out of her bank accounts, cutting off her financial means. Because of this, Claudia ended up homeless in San Francisco. These are all very common tactics of abusers seeking to bully and isolate their partners, which unfortunately I saw many times as a prosecutor in Contra Costa County.
Claudia sought help from four different nonprofits, but each turned her away. She could not afford a lawyer on her own. After one nonprofit finally accepted her case, they won a trial that allowed Claudia back in the home, removed her abusive husband, granted her sole custody of her children and helped her obtain a divorce.
Claudia’s case is sadly far less common than the hundreds of women in our city who are trapped in abusive environments because they cannot find or afford legal aid. Too many survivors are forced to choose between economic security and their personal safety.
By establishing the Office of Victim and Witness Rights as well as the right to civil counsel for domestic violence victims, we can provide much-needed support and comprehensive services to all crime victims. This initiative will kick off a process to create a “victim first” model for services and will be a centralized place for all victims to receive protection that eliminates the red tape currently in place limiting access to services. It will also consolidate and coordinate existing victims’ services across all city departments and connect victims of crime to financial assistance, medical reimbursement, and mental health support.
In a most profound way, Proposition D will provide survivors of domestic violence with an alternative and a new set of tools to end the cycle of violence. This initiative makes individuals who report domestic violence or file a domestic violence restraining order eligible for full-scope legal representation to aid with their legal issues, including protective orders, gun violence restraining orders, custody, child support, Marsy’s Law, alimony, social service benefits, health care, employment, and housing.
With your vote, we could be the first city in the United States to provide a right to civil counsel for domestic violence victims. I urge you to vote yes on Proposition D this June and help all crime victims in San Francisco.