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Alternatives to mass incarceration

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San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors vote down proposal to build a new jail. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

The plan for a new jail in The City is a proposal whose time has passed.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday boldly declared, with an unanimous vote, that building a new jail is neither a priority nor a direction it believes in for San Francisco. Supervisors instead called for more alternatives to incarceration, greater resources for mental health services and rehabilitation.

That’s the right direction, rather than reinforcing the system of mass incarceration with the construction of a new jail. The working group designated to suggest these alternatives to a new jail will be led by Department of Public Health Director Barbara Garcia and Sheriff-elect Vicki Hennessy. We hope they follow the board’s direction, and we are eager to hear their ideas.

Despite the unanimous vote, the issue of whether to build a new jail for The City’s declining inmate population has been contentious, garnering heated debates in public hearings and more than a few protests, including a raucous hearing on Dec. 2 when more than 100 protesters flooded a board committee meeting. That meeting was delayed as four people chained themselves together through PVC piping, forcing the Fire Department to come and cut through the tubing and chains, before the four were removed by deputy sheriffs.

At Tuesday’s vote, Supervisor Jane Kim said The City now has the chance to “reimagine our criminal justice system.”

There is agreement the condition of the Hall of Justice jail is unacceptable and The City should shut it down. The debate is whether The City needs replacement jail capacity or whether alternative programs would be effective to lessen that need. With the closure of the Hall of Justice jail, the system has 1,230 total beds.

Opponents to the new jail also cite the unequal incarceration of black people as a reason to demand criminal justice reform.

As of Nov. 20, the jail population, which has declined in recent years, was 1,270 inmates, almost half of whom were black.

District Attorney George Gascon sent a letter to the board opposing the new jail, calling it a “terrible mistake.” He said more needs to be done to address the high rate of mental illness among The City’s jail population, saying, “San Francisco has a mental health treatment problem, not a jail capacity problem.”

The board’s united stand this week is encouraging, signaling perhaps a more muscular opposition to Mayor Ed Lee, who supported the project to replace the existing dilapidated jail at the Hall of Justice, but couldn’t summon a single board ally in the fight. The arrival of Aaron Peskin, replacing mayor-appointed Julie Christensen, on the board this month promises to shake up the political dynamics at City Hall — and not in the mayor’s favor.

And then there is the issue of money.

True, The City stands to lose an $80 million state grant for the jail if it doesn’t build it, but that was just a fraction of the facility’s $240 million price tag, without debt service. It is as fair to say The City potentially saved hundreds of millions of dollars as it to say it lost $80 million by not building something San Francisco doesn’t want or need.

The City is better off spending that money on funding new programs that can help reduce and ease the scourge of traditional incarceration in our communities.

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