It’s been more than two years since the San Francisco Board of Supervisors committed The City to closing the seismically decrepit Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St. and exploring alternatives to jail construction. Yet few concrete steps, capital investments or budget allocations have been made toward building alternatives to imprisonment and increasing services that would reach the goal of reducing the jail population and closing the Hall of Justice.
Recent changes to court bail practices should be reducing the jail population size; however, the number of people in jail has not drastically changed over the last few months. Take, for instance, the fact that on any given day, nearly 85 percent of those in our jails are pretrial — people who, by and large, have not been convicted and are in jail for not being able to afford bail. The Public Defender’s Office has filed hundreds of bail motions in the last several months to have clients released, and in the recent decision in the case of Kenneth Humphrey — an impoverished 64-year-old man accused of following a neighbor into their home, threatening them and stealing a $5 bottle of cologne — the First District Court of Appeal of California found it unconstitutional to detain a person for inability to pay bail. Given the numbers, these actions should significantly reduce the jail population.
But they haven’t. Why?
The answer lies in The City’s contradictory practices when it comes to policing, prosecution and imprisonment. The prospective gains of progressive criminal justice reforms, such as pretrial releases, are being canceled out by increases to policing and harsher sentencing policies. Put simply, more police and more prosecutorial power mean more people in jail.
Earlier this month, the Board of Supervisors demonstrated this contradiction perfectly. Board President London Breed introduced a resolution that rightfully seeks to eliminate the use of many court- and sheriff-ordered fines and fees that disproportionately impact working-class and poor black and brown communities. A laudable effort and, notably, one supported by many organizations working with impacted communities. Yet, on the same day, Breed introduced another resolution supporting state legislation to expedite and increase the prosecution of car break-ins, which will surely lead to more people being funneled to jail faster. This resolution passed unanimously.
Police Chief William Scott, with support from many supervisors, is increasing foot patrols and the investigation of property thefts at each precinct toward aiding prosecution. There are reports of increased police harassment of homeless people. Rather than addressing root causes of theft, houselessness or interpersonal harm, these policies of “community policing” fuel gentrification and fill the jail with poor people. Social issues like homelessness or petty theft are increasingly dealt with by police contact — ultimately resulting in more arrests and people in jail — rather than social workers, expanded access to housing, additional youth opportunities or income supports.
If city leaders are truly committed to reducing the jail population, they must make a serious effort at prioritizing alternatives, particularly with budget season soon upon us. It may be politically favorable to stand up against jails in San Francisco, but jails are part of a larger system of criminalization which includes policing, prosecution and the courts. If politicians are sincere about closing jails in San Francisco, they must also address the root causes of high incarceration rates: prioritization of police and prosecution over life affirming services. The last two years have shown that efforts to reduce the number of people locked up will be meaningless if we’re not also addressing the policies and practices that push people into jail in the first place.
We could take a cue from our youth, who comprise 25 percent of our jail population. On Feb. 7, the Youth Commission passed a resolution for a 50 percent reduction of the transitional aged youth population (18-24 year olds) in the jail and asked city leaders to reject funding to reopen or expand jails. Reinforcing the Youth Commission 2015 vote against jail expansion, today’s youth are reminding the Board of Supervisors that The City’s charge is to close jails. Supporting the reduction of pretrial incarceration one day and increasing policing the next day is but a slightly altered recipe for continued jail expansion.
By turning away from meaningful social investments and turning toward policing, San Francisco is simply spinning its wheels, as the most targeted residents — young people, poor people, people of color and people with mental health needs — continue to cycle through the jail, with the jail population remaining constant. Expanded policing and prosecution don’t stop the revolving door of imprisonment, they just speed up the door’s motor. The jail at 850 Bryant will only close once The City stops targeting people to fill it.
Alex S. Vitale is a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of “The End of Policing.” He previously worked at the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. Karyn Smoot, born and raised in San Francisco, is a member of the Oakland chapter of Critical Resistance, a national organization challenging policing and imprisonment. She organizes with the No New SF Jail Coalition.