SF County Jail considered a model for prison realignment

The head of California's prison system stood among a group of men in orange jumpsuits last week talking about math.

Jeffrey A. Beard joined the 20 or so men who were studying in the Five Keys charter high school at the largest facility in San Francisco's County Jail system: the San Bruno building. The school is just one of the many programs in place to rehabilitate and prepare prisoners for civilian life.

“This facility is probably ahead of a lot of the counties out there — in fact, most of the counties,” said Beard, who was visiting a San Francisco jail for the first time. He hopes California's other jailers will look to it as a model now that more offenders are ending up in local lockups instead of state prison.

Beard has been making such visits in an effort to see the impacts of the state's prison reorganization on local jails. Since 2011, many low-level offenders are serving sentences in county jails instead of prison in an effort to reduce overcrowding.

Known as realignment and brought about through state legislation, the changes were forced on California after a federal court ordered the prison system to reduce its inmate count so as to adequately provide for those in the system.

Since then, county jails and sheriff's departments statewide have been trying to get their bearings in this new reality. The state's prison system — which comprises 34 locations — has started to work much more closely with the more than 50 county jails across the state, and visits such as Beard's in San Francisco last week are part of that increased cooperation.

This sea change afoot in incarceration practices — which until recently were about locking people up — has forced jails and the prisons, by sheer necessity, into becoming places of rehabilitation.

Much of that effort must now happen in county jails, Beard said, and San Francisco is a shining example of what the state's new criminal justice system may increasingly resemble.

“They want to reduce the recidivism, they want to do things that we are seeing here in San Francisco,” Beard said of other county jailers.

In recent years, San Francisco's inmate population has declined — mostly because The City's justice system as a whole has focused on restorative measures, which means jailing the most violent offenders and trying to put low-level offenders into alternative programs.

Such efforts have helped reduce the recidivism rate, which is hard to categorize but is below 50 percent, according to the Sheriff's Department. And that rate has dropped by 20 percent in recent years.

Sixty-one percent of state prison inmates return to incarceration within three years of release, according to the latest data from 2013 reported by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, most other counties have seen their jails fill as realignment forces them to house all the low-level offenders they arrest and prosecute.

The San Bruno Jail, which has a capacity of 768 inmates and whose 16 pods hold 48 inmates each, currently has about 705 inmates. The total jail system population is roughly 1,200.

In 1993, The City's jail population peaked at 2,321.

That low population, and the range of programs at the jail, makes San Francisco a model that Beard would like other counties to emulate, even if he has no formal power over county jails.

“You can't force programming on county jails, but you see I think most county jails want to do it,” said Beard, adding that he has been saying to sheriffs that they should examine what's happening in San Francisco.

The County Jail's programming is a multidisciplinary approach to dealing with prisoners from violence-reduction programs to mental health counseling, job training and drug treatment.

These efforts are part of the reason the state prison system is already cooperating with San Francisco in a program started this year called a re-entry pod, which sends prison inmates who only have 60 days until release to serve the remainder of their time in San Francisco. Once here, they are put into programs that include high school and nascent vocational classes, among others, so that upon release they are better prepared for the world outside.

The pod is the first of its kind and San Francisco was chosen because it had room, said Beard, but also because few other counties have such robust programs and connections with community groups.

“Beard is [a] radar to Gov. Brown,” Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said. “It's important he witness how we transcend the challenges of state prisoner realignment and overall prepare inmates for release.”

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