Many communities in San Francisco are suffering as residents struggle to find work and housing under recent cuts to health care and other important services. Our homeless population is steadily increasing, and San Francisco’s income inequality is the highest of any city in the state.
The City’s response to the suffering of our most marginalized residents has been to hide them away within county jails. Eighty-five percent of prisoners in San Francisco County jails are pre-trial, doing time solely because they are too poor to afford bail. Twenty-eight percent of people in county jails have at one time been homeless. Black residents are 6 percent of our population, yet they comprise 56 percent of our jails’ population. Yet, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy wants to build another jail to continue these same unjust practices.
The No New SF Jail Coalition is fighting to stop the expansion of a system that targets and devastates our communities.
Our message has not gone unheard — in fact, it’s been grossly misinterpreted by Mayor Ed Lee and Sheriff Hennessy. In a recent op-ed to the San Francisco Chronicle, Mayor Lee outlined his response to the organizing we have done to stop new jails in our city.
We are severely disappointed that he has taken our language and warped it to advocate practices that do not actually address our deep concerns with jailing.
As a response to the large amounts of people struggling with mental health or substance needs in jails, Lee has proposed a program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, which allows an officer to choose to either arrest a person or to send them to services after they are convicted for low-level offenses.
LEAD is based on the premise that police officers will divert people with mental health or substance issues to social services instead of arresting them. However, this process ensures that law enforcement — not health care professionals — will be the main gatekeepers of much needed services. Many communities in San Francisco have a deep distrust of police because of the routine brutality and profiling they have experienced. Further reliance on the police will worsen the racism inherent in jails when officers use their discretion to divert white people to services while continuing to lock up and prosecute more people of color. In addition, under LEAD, the police would have the power to arrest those who choose not to seek services.
Law enforcement and social services have been proven to function best when they are separate. Yet adopting LEAD would divert funding from direct — and voluntary — forms of social service, while empowering police to control who receives care and what kinds of care they can access.
Lee has also proposed to increase the use of electronic monitoring. Electronic monitoring is not an alternative to jail; rather, it extends the state’s power of surveillance into people’s homes. Of course, this surveillance is concentrated within the communities that are already the most affected by hyper-incarceration.
What Lee is suggesting is that instead of fully releasing a person, we should continue to monitor them for longer periods after they have completed parole. In practice, electronic monitoring can add to jail time, instead of replacing it. Often, so-called “released” individuals are monitored for the rest of their lives.
People under electronic monitoring are often made to wear demeaning ankle bracelets, which can be used to track their exact locations and they are often penalized for the slightest misstep. Those who are monitored by ankle bracelets are expected to pay a daily fee of $5 to $25 for the service of having their privacy violated.
Neither LEAD nor electronic monitoring are solutions that address the racism and ableism of our criminal punishment system. Under LEAD, the police would continue to disproportionately target people of color and people with mental health needs, but with the additional capability of offering a false choice between coerced “treatment” and jail. Those who are selected for electronic monitoring are the same people who are targeted for jail time: black and brown folks.
We fight jails because they negatively impact our San Francisco communities, and they do so on the taxpayers’ dime. Our opposition to jail expansion should not be used to justify more systems of state surveillance or to increase law enforcement’s power over marginalized communities. Lee and Hennessy should heed the work of our coalition and abandon these failed approaches.
Natalia Marques works for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a member of the No New SF Jail Coalition.