With the inmate population shrinking to historic lows amid the coronavirus pandemic, San Francisco appears ready to close the dilapidated jail at the Hall of Justice within a matter of months.
A Board of Supervisors committee unanimously voted Thursday afternoon to support an ordinance requiring the aging facility, called County Jail No. 4, to shutter by the beginning of November.
“This is necessary,” said Richmond District Supervisor Sandra Fewer, who authored the legislation. “This is a public health mandate and most importantly, it is the morally right thing to do.”
For years, city leaders have recognized that the aging Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St. is a public health hazard. Home to the seventh-floor jail as well as the criminal courts, the building could crumble in an earthquake and is plagued by sewage spills that seep into cells and offices.
While police, prosecutors and others once housed at the 1960s-era building have relocated in recent years, the jail count had not dropped low enough for inmates to safely be housed elsewhere until now.
Since the coronavirus crisis began, the number of inmates locked up in San Francisco jails has fallen from around 1,100 a month in February to a low of 696 as of Thursday morning, according to authorities.
The City has had a long-established goal of reducing the count to 1,044 — or 90 percent capacity for the remaining County Jail Nos. 2 and 5 in San Bruno and South of Market once County Jail No. 4 is closed.
The challenge for authorities ahead is keeping the count low.
But criminal justice leaders like District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Public Defender Manohar Raju have thus far been successful in reducing the jail population, including by releasing several dozen inmates early.
“We have been well under 1,000 now for a month,” Boudin said. “We can and we will sustain these low jail population numbers.”
In an email to his staff Wednesday, Boudin argued that releasing people early has worked. Just six of the 42 people released thus far had been rearrested, including three who were taken into custody before their originally scheduled release dates, he said.
“These numbers are dramatically lower than typical recidivism rates,” Boudin wrote. “San Francisco crime rates are down, which validates the careful and deliberate approach all of us have taken in determining which people to release from custody and on what conditions.”
While reported crime decreased overall by 4 percent as of the end of March, violent crime was up by 4 percent or 51 incidents, led by a 15 percent increase in robberies. Property crime was down 4 percent, with a 9 percent drop in auto burglaries.
Fewer’s legislation had faced opposition from Sheriff Paul Miyamoto.
Miyamoto, who supported an earlier plan from Mayor London Breed to close the jail by next July, worried that the inmate population could bounce back once the coronavirus crisis is over.
The sheriff also expressed concerns that taking away a jail facility would restrict his ability to implement social distancing.
But on Thursday, Miyamoto said changes Fewer made to the legislation have helped ensure that “we have flexibility to accommodate the population needs that we have should the count change in six months.”
Under the legislation, a subcommittee of the the Sentencing Commission would come up with a contingency plan should the inmate population spike above 1,044.
The commission would also develop “policy recommendations for temporary housing facilities if the population exceeds a threshold determined by the Director of Jail Health to be safe in preventing the spread of infectious disease.”
“We do recognize that such as the emergency created by COVID-19, there may be a medical supportive need to house people in a different type of setting,” Miyamoto said.
The legislation also raised concerns for the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association over the possibility of job losses.
“Particularly in this time of economic crisis, this is of concern,” said Ken Lomba, president of the union.
A Budget and Legislative Analyst report on the legislation found that closing the jail could lead to up to $17.4 million in cost reductions for the Sheriff’s Department if the 85 uniformed positions currently assigned to County Jail No. 4 were eliminated.
But the legislation specifically states that job losses or layoffs as a result of the closure should be avoided.
Lomba said departments should use the pending closure as an opportunity to reassess “their current law enforcement needs whether it’s economic savings or increasing law enforcement by using deputy sheriffs for their departments.”
While further approval is needed, the legislation already has the support of supervisors Matt Haney, Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen, Dean Preston, Gordon Mar, Aaron Peskin and Ashsa Safai.
On Thursday, the Government Audit and Oversight Committee forwarded the legislation to the May 5 meeting of the Board of Supervisors with a positive recommendation.
This story has been updated.