San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday against building a new jail and called for alternatives to incarceration with greater investment in mental health services and other rehabilitation programs.
Instead of building a new jail, The City will convene a working group comprised of the Department of Public Health Director Barbara Garcia and Sheriff-elect Vicki Hennessy, among others, to come up with an alternative to building the proposed 384-bed jail next to the Hall of Justice.
The recommendations are expected by March.
“I’ve seen way too many people from my community, friends, even family members, end up on the wrong side of these iron bars,” board President London Breed said. She called the jail proposal “a return to an era of mass incarceration, an era San Francisco is trying to leave behind.”
The vote means San Francisco could lose the recently awarded $80 million state grant for the jail. Those involved in the debate say there will be conversations with State Sen. Mark Leno about changing the rules to free up the funds for other uses.
The board also voted to continue moving forward with the $14.5 million purchase of land next to the Hall of Justice, where the jail would have been built, for other possible uses like a mental health clinic or pretrial diversion programs.
Sheriff Deputy Matthew Freeman was critical of the board’s decision. “Public safety was dealt a major blow today,” he said.
Supervisor Scott Wiener, who has spoken in favor of the jail, said he supported alternatives to incarceration. But he also warned about the lack of jail beds. “We have a real crime problem here in San Francisco,” Wiener said. “If we don’t have those real alternatives, we are going to have a real problem on our hands.”
Supervisor Jane Kim, a longtime opponent of the jail, said The City now has the chance to “reimagine our criminal justice system.”
Kim said the system tends to “sweep those that have the least off our streets into our jails” when they are homeless, mentally ill or addicted to drugs.
Mayor Ed Lee supported the project to replace the unsound existing jail facilities at the Hall of Justice but was unable to convince the board to approve it, signaling a new political reality with the election of progressive-aligned Aaron Peskin in November over the mayor’s appointee, Julie Christensen.
Mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey said in an email after the vote, “The purchase of the property is moving forward and the Mayor is looking forward to the work on mental health and other jail diversion strategies that will now be undertaken and led by the Sheriff’s Department and our Public Health professionals.”
Several members of the board said longtime public health advocates, like Roma Guy and Lauren Thomas, had an impact on their decision.
After the vote, Lizzie Buchen, a coordinator with Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a statewide group opposing the jail project, celebrated the outcome.
“This is the first jail fight that we have won,” Buchen said of the three-year effort. “In the beginning, we had no supervisors on our side.”
She added, “We can do differently. We can be innovative.”
The debate over the $380 million jail project was one of the more sustained and politically charged issues in recent years. Protests opposing the jail were vigorous, and four protesters even chained themselves together through PVC piping during a City Hall board committee hearing.
Adding to the local politics is the backdrop of state and national movements, calling for a reform of the criminal justice system with a reliance on rehabilitation programs, like drug and mental health treatment, instead of continued “mass incarceration.”
The debate about the jail also highlights racial tensions taking center stage across the nation due to movements like Black Lives Matter, which have mobilized mass protests in wakes of police shootings of black people.
As of Nov. 20, the jail population, which has declined over the years, was 1,270. Black people comprised 49 percent of the jail population.
If the Hall of Justice jails No. 3 and No. 4 were to shut down – there is agreement the conditions warrant their closure – there would be a maximum of 1,230 total beds in the system.