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Mayor Lee proposes $27M package of diversion programs to help reduce jail population

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San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy leaves the podium after speaking during a news conference held at San Francisco’s Adult Probation Department in the South of Market District Thursday, June 22, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco leaders are attempting to further reduce recidivism in a city already replete with programs targeting people who repeatedly cycle in and out of jail and the criminal justice system.

The effort adds on to existing programs that are meant to help stop the cycle of poverty, drug abuse and generational incarceration that plagues many of the people stuck in San Francisco’s criminal justice system.

The latest plan to slow recidivism comes in the form of a $27 million budget proposal, which has been public for weeks, but was touted Thursday by Mayor Ed Lee as a new package of funds for diversion. The not-yet-passed budget proposal would also be aimed at improving services for people with drug abuse issues and mental health problems.

“We want to divert people from the system,” said Lee, who added that repeating old mistakes has not solved the problem of recidivism. “What are we doing here? Is it insanity?”

If passed by the Board of Supervisors before the fiscal year beginning July 1, the funding for Lee’s package of diversion efforts will augment already existing programs. Drug and mental health courts, and the lower prioritization of drug possession prosecutions, are just two examples of San Francisco’s approach to the seemingly intractable problem. The City currently spends $120 million a year on such programs.

The funds will be split and spread over a two-year period, and will help expand a number of projects already in place, from an out-of-custody ankle bracelet program for the Sheriff’s Department with $1 million in new funds, to expanded pretrial diversion in the form of three new staffers at the Public Defender’s Office. The proposal will also expand the hours for rebooking inmates in and out of County Jail into the weekend, so that people arrested, but not charged with a crime, will not have to wait for two days before being released.

SEE RELATED: Diversion program could send more drug and alcohol offenders away from jail

All of these efforts are intended to help lower the County Jail population in the Hall of Justice so that by 2019 County Jail No. 4, which holds about 350 inmates, can be shut down. But that outcome remains uncertain at this point, since the diversion programs being expanded or put into place have yet to bear fruit.

“The whole purpose is to promote safe ways that we can divert people from the criminal justice system,” said Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, cautioning that it’s too early to say how and if these programs will reduce the jail population. With that in mind, Hennessy’s department is exploring reopening County Jail No. 3 in San Bruno in case the jail population in County Jail No. 4 does not drop to zero by 2019, the year that city offices and operations must be moved out of the Hall of Justice because of seismic issues.

Lee’s proposal will also help pay to expand a service center a block from the Hall of Justice to 24 hours a day, so that it can receive people during all hours. Those people would include some of about 250 serial repeat offenders who are picked up by police and are eligible for a drug diversion program, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. Under the program, police will offer these offenders two options: go to jail or participate in the LEAD program, which is set to begin in September.

“If individuals…are using drugs for their own use or in possession of drugs for their own use, they will be brought here,” said Karen Fletcher, the chief adult probation officer.

The Community Assessment and Service Center, at 564 Sixth St., which is under the supervision of the San Francisco Adult Probation Department, will serve as the LEAD intake center and, if Lee’s budget package is passed, the 24-hour-a-day location where recently released inmates can find work, caseworkers and other services so that they do not fall into old habits and return to jail. The center is now open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. most days.

The issue is personal for Board of Supervisors President London Breed, who has family and friends in the criminal justice system.

“Many of you know this issue is personal for me,” said Breed. “People from my community, family members from my community, going through the cycle of imprisonment…forced me to look at this issue now as a member of the Board of Supervisors and start thinking about ways to change it.”

“It really comes down to opportunities and options,” said Shamann Walton, president of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education, and head of a nonprofit that helps repeat offenders get jobs and job training.

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