Controversy Over Plans for Jail Expansion in San Francisco

Opponents of this jail expansion, including advocates for jail reform and Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), dispute the need for a new jail. They oppose the idea of spending millions on a new jail instead of on mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment and affordable housing.

by TJ Johnston

“Uniquely, San Francisco is in one of the most enviable positions in California and the U.S. with an undercrowded jail population.” — Ross Mirkarimi in a KCBS interview, Jan. 12, 2014

To build a bigger jail, a smaller jail, or not to build any jail at all. That is the question.

At least, that was one of the questions posed at a hearing of the Board of Supervisors’ Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee. David Campos, the chairman of the committee, asked the board’s budget analyst to examine the cost-effectiveness of Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi’s plan for an expanded county jail facility near the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street in San Francisco.

Despite the dwindling occupancy of the county jails, Mirkarimi is asking the city to replace the two jails at 850 Bryant with 640 added beds on the former site of a nearby McDonald’s. He cited the Hall of Justice’s lack of earthquake safety as a reason for the upgrade.

At last count on January 7, those jails hold 352 inmates, less than half of their 828-bed capacity. The entire third floor has already been closed. The budget analyst’s office suggested building one that keeps 384 beds. According to its report, the City of San Francisco would save $100 million in general fund money from the sheriff’s $290 million estimate.

The budget analyst also attributes the decline in the daily average jail population to pretrial diversion programs and alternative sentencing methods, as well as the falling number of 18- to 35-year-old adults in the citywide population.

The proposal has created a curious division among city law enforcement. District Attorney George Gascon is against the expansion. His office predicts a 10 percent reduction of inmates next year.

But Police Chief Greg Suhr said the decline would only be temporary, and he told the panel he expects an increase because the city would hire 300 officers by 2018.

“They’re going to make more arrests,” he said. “It’s just going to happen.”

Opponents to this plan, including advocates for jail reform and others, dispute the need for a new jail. An alliance of community-based organizations headed by Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) took to the podium during the public comment section. The recurring theme of the opposition is the lack of services, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, and affordable housing.

Emily Harris, statewide coordinator of CURB, said the focus on the budget analyst’s report was too heavy on involvement from law enforcement and suggested the question about a new jail be reframed.

“What would be the programs that are not invested in cages?” she asked the panel. “Stop the jail proposal immediately.”

San Francsco sherriffs put up barricades at the Hall of Justice during last year’s Occupy protests. Steve Rhodes photo

Others testified that inmates in county jails haven’t been tried in court yet. Three-fourths of inmates are in pre-trial detention and one-fourth cannot afford bail, according to a fact sheet from San Francisco Taxpayers for Public Safety.

Homeless people and people with serious substance abuse and mental health problems represent a significant part of the jail population and could benefit when supportive housing and treatment programs are financed instead of resources in the criminal justice system, said Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach.

“I’m hoping we could look at this as an opportunity,” she said. “Just think how we could invest that money, at least over $27 million in bond service, to do a lot more.”

Laura Magnani, representing the American Friends Service Committee, told the panel that a new jail would be unnecessary if the needs of pretrial inmates are addressed, and that money is being taken away from diversion programs.

“It always comes down to a matter of priorities,” Magnani said. “The reality is, the money is coming from the general fund and the time we’re spending on talking about this today is time we’re not able to talk about these robust programs.”

Adrienne Skye Roberts, a volunteer with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, read statements of opposition from female inmates on their behalf.

“A new state-of-the-art facility is irrelevant if it’s filled with deputies who are abusive against us,” she said. “A jailhouse is a jailhouse is a jailhouse. It is never safe. They want to lock us up instead of helping people with our problems.”

Pending an environmental impact report, construction is expected to start in 2017 and be completed by 2019.

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