California’s prison and jail crisis continues to draw international attention as the state with the highest number of people living in cages has been found guilty of cruel and unusual punishment. The United States Supreme Court has ordered Governor Jerry Brown to reduce California’s prison population by tens of thousands by the end of 2013. Many of those effected come from our poorest communities, including people of color, communities experiencing high levels of unemployment and homelessness, and those already experiencing mental health and addiction challenges.
In response to this ruling, many of California’s prisoners are being transferred to local jurisdictions which research shows are better equipped to respond to rehabilitation needs since they are closer to inmates home communities and support networks. Rehabilitation can really only happen where support and resources exist.
Here in San Francisco we have prioritized alternatives to incarceration, investing in community-based programs and community-based rehabilitation. As a result, our county jail population averages 65% of capacity – in drastic contrast to the state’s more than 137% capacity, a figure that is mirrored by many of the states 57 other counties.
In the face of this positive trend, many local leaders are outraged that San Francisco Sheriff, Ross Mirkarimi, is proposing construction of a new $700 Million dollar jail to replace the current downtown facility located at 850 Bryant. District Attorney George Gascon, points out that San Francisco has many more options we can utilize to further reduce our jail population, thereby eliminating all together the need for a downtown jail. These strategies include sentencing reform, bail reform, pre-trial diversion, and bolstering community-based programs aimed at addressing the needs of our poorest communities.
Currently 75% of the people in San Francisco County Jails are there because they can not afford bail – simply put, they are there because they are poor. In fact, recent reports have shown an increase in mental health needs of the San Francisco jail population. Our jails have been tasked to serve as mental health facilities with no services to offer and with no track record of helping anyone navigate the mental health system. Additionally, the San Francisco County Jail population is 56% African-American – a shocking number considering the overall African-American population in San Francisco is at a rapidly declining 6%.
Our current jail system consists of six (6) facilities, two (2) of which are located in San Bruno. The proposed new jail would replace the notoriously decrepit and seismically unfit jails # 3 & 4, both located at 850 Bryant. Advocates for no new jail agree that the current jail should be immediately decommissioned and that current jail space be more effectively used by prioritizing increased programming and rehabilitation services for those languishing in cages.
The Coalition On Homelessness recognizes that housing and basic needs are the number one deterrent to activities that often land people in jail; the simple act of being homeless and existing in public space becoming more and more regarded as criminal. Building permanent, affordable housing rather than more unneeded jail cells is the only viable response to the crisis created by criminalizing poverty and homelessness. A $700 Million dollar jail will do nothing to ease the suffering that results from homelessness, mental health, and addiction – it will only exacerbate the problem and increase the crisis we are currently facing as a city.
We oppose the building of a replacement jail and support instead the building of homes!