Cindy Chew/2010 S.F Examiner file photo

Opponents decry proposal to build new San Francisco County Jail facility

San Francisco is poised to seek up to $80 million in state funding to help pay for a new 640-bed jail, even as the plan faces opposition from influential figures like The City’s top prosecutor.

The roughly $300 million facility would sit next to the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St., which houses courtrooms, the Police Department headquarters and an aging 828-bed jail that the new one would replace.

District Attorney George Gascón said a wiser investment would be to put money into programs that have helped reduce the jail population over the years.

San Francisco’s inmate population has declined from 1,976 in 2009 to 1,535 last year, according to the Sheriff’s Department, which runs the County Jail system.

Opponents of the new jail want that trend to continue.

“We have over 5,000 people sleeping on our city streets and we should be building affordable homes for these people instead of building jail cells for them,” said Emily Harris, a statewide organizer for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a group fighting to reduce jail populations.

Opponents also highlight systemic inequalities. San Francisco’s inmates are predominately from the Tenderloin, Western Addition and Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhoods. While black residents make up just 6 percent of The City’s total population, 56 percent of inmates are black. White residents account for 34 percent of inmates and 48.5 percent of San Francisco’s population.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote next week on applying for state grant funding for the new jail. Supervisor Eric Mar said he “can’t under clear conscience support” what he called “a step forward towards expanding the prison-industrial complex in this country.”

But The City has long planned to replace the aging jail, and the project has the support of both Mayor Ed Lee and Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.

“The mayor believes a replacement jail is necessary and is the most feasible way forward to ensure the safety of inmates and staff currently in the Hall of Justice,” mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey said.

Mirkarimi said it would be a modern facility that is 30 percent smaller than the existing space.

Addressing jail opponents, Mirkarimi said, “They fear that it risks field-of-dreams theory. I don’t think San Francisco has demonstrated that.” That theory is “if you build it, they will fill it.”

The grant application doesn’t commit The City to building the jail. The actual project would require environmental review and Board of Supervisors approval. A number of supervisors have said they will approve the grant application and reserve the debate over the jail for a future date. But opponents say it would only create momentum for ultimate approval.

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