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A safer choice for San Franciscans

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Do we want an expensive and unnecessary new jail or the kind of investments that protect San Franciscans from becoming the victims of crime?

As the district supervisor representing the home of the proposed new jail and communities impacted by crime, the choice is clear: We want proven programs that prevent crimes.

That means saying no to a new jail, and saying yes to the treatment, mental health, education, housing, job training and other programs that cost less and do more to prevent crime.

Right now, San Francisco has a surplus of jail beds, and that surplus is growing. In fact, we could close the jail in the Hall of Justice and still have more than 1,000 surplus beds. Our jail population has been steadily declining over the past decade as crime rates drop.

We can lower our jail population even more by taking the basic steps to direct homeless San Franciscans to housing (fully 29 percent of homeless San Franciscans spent at least one night in jail last year), invest in mental health treatment (71 percent of inmates have mental health issues) and lowering drop-out rates and sending more kids to college (high school drop outs are 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates).

The facts speak for themselves: We don’t need new jail beds. And just because the state is offering us money to build a new jail does not make this a good deal. That’s because the state funds do not cover the entire cost of building the new jail and they don’t cover the costs of operating that jail at all. Instead of a new jail that we don’t need, we have a pressing need to expand programs that prevent crime.

San Franciscans are justifiably concerned about crime. Even though violent crime has dropped dramatically in most categories, there has been an uptick in some types of property crime in the past few years.

We need to do more to prevent the auto break-ins, the smartphone thefts and the other kind of crimes that are anything but petty when it comes to our quality of life.

But new jail beds will not prevent those crimes. If anything, they will make them worse.

The fact is sending first-time violators to jail for any period of time can backfire, sending troubled youth on a path toward criminality. Jail is expensive — much more expensive than education, job training, mental health counseling or supportive housing, all of which are programs proven to prevent crime.

Proponents of the new jail say we should not turn down “free” funds. But these funds are far from free. If we accept these funds, we will be obligated to spend hundreds of millions of local funds to build an unneeded new jail and then tens of millions more each year to operate it.

There is a better path forward to keep San Franciscans safe. It starts with making sure we are spending our own scarce local tax dollars wisely — and that is not on an unnecessary new jail. And it continues with working together to change state law — so this grant can be spent on the programs that do the most to prevent crime.

I will work in the months ahead with our local state elected officials to do just that. But the most important first step is saying Yes to proven treatments and NO to an unnecessary new jail.

Jane Kim is a San Francisco supervisor.

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