Three years after the Board of Supervisors voted to reject state grant funding to build a new jail, The City is still searching for ways to reduce its jail population and avoid the need for new construction. (Mike Koozmin/2014 S.F. Examiner)

SF gets $2 million to avoid building new jail, shrink inmate population

A plan to avoid the need to build a new jail in San Francisco by reducing the number of people behind bars has received $2 million in funding, District Attorney George Gascon announced Tuesday.

San Francisco has long debated whether to build a new jail once the decrepit Hall of Justice is closed and its cells emptied. But Gascon said The City will no longer need one if the average daily population of inmates falls by 16 percent.

SEE RELATED: Jail inmates sue SF over exposure to human waste at Hall of Justice

The district attorney hopes to see the average population in county jails drop from around 1,300 to some 1,100 over the next two years through the grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which will fund five new positions to meet that goal.

“The problem we have is that we continue to incarcerate the mentally ill and drug addicted at disproportionate rates,” Gascon told the San Francisco Examiner. “Basically our jail is the largest mental health facility in the county.”

The funds will be used to hire a behavioral health clinician to determine whether an inmate is eligible for collaborative courts or for a negotiated sentence to a behavioral treatment facility. The plan also calls for The City to increase the number of mental health beds for inmates.

Gascon said an estimated 40 percent of inmates in County Jail seek mental health services, while 15 percent suffer from a serious mental illness.

Nancy Crowley, a spokesperson for Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, applauded the grant but expressed skepticism that the jail population would drop as much as Gascon hope.

“We must also prepare for the likely possibility that the reduction gained by our efforts will not reduce the count to a level that will allow us to close County Jail 4,” Crowley said. “Projected population growth, increased deployment of police and the fact that the jail population is not a static population may work against the reduction.”

One problem inflating The City’s inmate population is that an inmate could spend up to 120 days in jail in 2017 “simply waiting for a treatment bed in community,” according to the District Attorney’s Office. Inmates are given lesser priority than people on the street.

Gascon said the lack of treatment beds for people who abuse substances or suffer from mental illness leads to recidivism.

“The people that we are talking about here are people that are getting in and out of jail for the same crimes,” Gascon said. “What we’re hoping is that we figure out a solution so that they don’t come back again.”

Focusing on inmates who suffer from mental health is just one of the strategies the grant funding will be used for. The District Attorney’s Office laid out five strategies for reducing the population including the better collection and analysis of data and the faster processing of cases.

SEE RELATED: Opponents of new jail to have three years to reduce jail population

The announcement comes a day before a Board of Supervisors committee will hear updates from a working group examining strategies to close the jail on the seventh floor of the seismically unsafe Hall of Justice, called County Jail 4. The group includes the sheriff and Department of Public Health.

The working group was established after plans to build a new $80 million jail to replace County Jail 4 died in December 2015 amid opposition from social justice groups.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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