Fewer introduces legislation to speed up closure of Hall of Justice jail

Citing need for jail beds amid coronavirus, Sheriff Miyamoto opposes plan

A San Francisco supervisor is moving forward with plans to close the dilapidated seventh-floor jail above the Hall of Justice within six months.

Supervisor Sandra Fewer introduced legislation Tuesday that would require the closure of County Jail No. 4 and aim to reduce the jail population without sending inmates to Alameda County.

“The jail population right now, as we speak, is being reduced because of COVID-19,” Fewer said in a video statement. “This is an opportune time to evaluate those measures being taken and apply best practices for the jail closure plan.”

Fewer first announced her legislation in late March, but did not formally introduce it until now. She has the support of supervisors Matt Haney, Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen and Dean Preston.

San Francisco has for years planned to close the seismically unsafe jail, but ran into problems reducing the jail population enough to shutter its doors without opening or renovating a new facility.

That is until the coronavirus crisis prompted the average daily jail population to plummet by 35 percent since January, with 765 people behind bars in San Francisco custody as of Tuesday morning.

The drop is in part attributable to Public Defender Manohar Raju and District Attorney Chesa Boudin agreeing to release certain inmates early, as well as overall declines in arrests and crime.

Both Raju and Boudin support the rapid closure. Boudin said that San Francisco would need to invest in support networks to prevent recidivism and continue reducing the jail population.

“Closing County Jail No. 4, along with our work already to reduce the jail population, will allow us to save tax dollars and reinvest our savings into supporting our most vulnerable residents,” Boudin said in a statement.

Raju said that the jail has raised his concerns for the inmates at the jail to “an emergency level.”

“Social distancing and safe ‘sheltering-in-place’ is impossible in conditions where multiple strangers must share one toilet, one sink and sleep on shared bunk beds,” Raju said in a statement.

“While all congregate living spaces within the jails raise concerns during this pandemic, County Jail No. 4 has always been by far the worst,” he added.

While Sheriff Paul Miyamoto supports closing the jail by July 2021 as Mayor London Breed has ordered, he does not support its closure within the next six months.

In an April 9 letter, Miyamoto urged Fewer to postpone her legislation until after the crisis has ended.

He argued that it would be both “reckless and meaningless” to predict how many people San Francisco will need to jail in the future based on numbers taken during the crisis.

“Right now, I am unable to assess how many beds will be needed next week, much less commit to a fixed bed capacity going forward,” Miyamoto said.

And while the decreased inmate population has allowed him to implement social distancing in jails, Miyamoto said that would not be the case if the jail closed.

“If this legislation becomes law and this pandemic is not over, or if other unforeseen circumstances arise, I will not have the flexibility to safely distance inmates to protect their health, the health of the staff and the health of the community,” Miyamoto said.

With more than 1,500 beds currently in the jail system, including nearly 400 at County Jail No. 4, the doctor in charge of inmate health has recommended that the jail count be reduced to between 700 and 800 — a goal The City now meets.

Fewer’s legislation would task a subcommittee of the Sentencing Commission with finding ways to further reduce the jail count without considering sending inmates to Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County or adding new jail beds at existing facilities, as Miyamoto has proposed.

If passed, the legislation would require the jail to close by Nov. 1.

mbarba@sfexaminer.co

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