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San Francisco Superior Court will separate and expand its domestic violence and drug courts this summer, allowing each to take on more cases. The two rehabilitation-focused programs are currently conducted under one judge in Dept. 18 — domestic violence matters are handled in the morning and drug cases in the afternoon. But beginning in mid-summer, Presiding Judge Donna Hitchens is giving each program its own judge and courtroom. Hitchens said she is aiming more resources at the two courts because drug and domestic violence cases make up more than 50 percent of the city’s criminal docket. “We haven’t been able to include all the cases in the drug or domestic violence court, because there just hasn’t been the space or judicial resources,” said Hitchens, who took over as PJ in January. At the same time, the drug and domestic violence courts have proven “remarkably” effective in reducing recidivism, the judge said. The move is welcomed by the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices alike. “Since both courts require a lot of time, it will allow the court, we hope, to better focus its efforts,” said Teresa Caffese, chief attorney for the public defender. The criminal domestic violence court currently monitors probation for defendants charged with domestic violence. It also handles pretrial matters for misdemeanor domestic violence cases, including arraignments, pretrial conferences and motions, said Judge Harold Kahn, who now presides over both courts. The plan calls for Kahn to continue presiding over the domestic violence court and for Judge Susan Breall to take over the drug court. The split is expected to happen July 14. The current drug court offers eligible defendants an opportunity to have non-violent, drug-related felony charges dismissed if they successfully complete a rigorous menu of treatments assigned by the court. The judge works with the public defender, district attorney, adult probation department and the San Francisco Drug Court Treatment Center to assign and monitor each defendant’s treatment. That usually includes one or more substance abuse rehab programs and regular drug tests, and sometimes other programs such as mental health counseling, Kahn said. The soon-to-be-separated courts will take on some responsibilities now handled in other courtrooms, Hitchens said. The expanded drug court, which Breall said she is calling “treatment court,” will absorb a behavioral health court program that Judge Kay Tsenin developed earlier this year. The behavioral health court assigns defendants with severe mental health issues to treatment programs, and uses incentives such as reduced or dismissed charges, and sanctions, to encourage progress, Breall said. Also, Proposition 36 cases that have so far been assigned to any available misdemeanor courtroom will be consolidated in the new drug court, Hitchens said. Under Prop 36, certain offenders convicted of non-violent drug possession can enter drug treatment rather than be incarcerated. The head of the DA’s narcotics unit, Assistant DA Elizabeth Aguilar-Tarchi, lauded Hitchens’ plans to divide the courts, emphasizing that she thinks it will improve how Prop 36 cases are handled. Different protocols in various courtrooms confuse Prop 36 defendants now, and some get “lost in the shuffle” because they don’t know how to proceed, or get frustrated and quit, said Aguilar-Tarchi. In a centralized treatment court, “you have the experts there, and then they tell you where to go.” The treatment court will also likely include a fledgling street-to-work program developed by the district attorney, which aims to lead drug dealers without an addiction into a better line of work, Breall said. And because many women with drug cases have self-esteem issues they’re reluctant to discuss in front of men, Breall said, she hopes to dedicate Thursday afternoons in treatment court to women’s cases. “It’s really an exciting idea, to have a full-day treatment court,” said Breall. It will be the former prosecutor’s first time presiding in a drug court. As for what functions will be added to the domestic violence court, that “remains to be seen,” Kahn said. The workload in that court increased in September when it began monitoring felony probations as well as the misdemeanor probations it had historically overseen, he noted. Hitchens said she expects the expanded domestic violence court will begin to handle some preliminary matters for felony domestic violence cases, as it now does for misdemeanor domestic violence cases. Taking on some domestic violence-related trials is another possibility, Kahn said. “It’s really going to be a work in progress.” Caffese said the public defender’s office hopes that the domestic violence judge will have more time to scrutinize each case so that when a charge should be dismissed, it’s done quickly. “In domestic violence court now, it’s almost an assembly line,” Caffese said. The misdemeanor arraignment courtroom now run by Breall will be phased out around the same time the drug and domestic violence courts are separated, Hitchens said.

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