Calif. jails struggle with rising inmate populations, housing trouble

Three years after SF lawmakers rejected a plan to build a new jail, the city struggles to decrease its inmate population


By Evan Sernoffsky
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — Three years after San Francisco lawmakers rejected a plan to build a new jail, the city has been unable to decrease its inmate population despite efforts by multiple agencies in the criminal justice system.

City leaders now face a dilemma: leave hundreds of inmates inside the run-down County Jail No. 4 on the top floor of the seismically-unsound Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street or take the undesirable step of sending hundreds of people to Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.

“What keeps me awake at night is County Jail No. 4,” Sheriff Vicki Hennessy told members of the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday. “Jails are part of what we as a city are responsible for and County Jail No. 4 is an embarrassment - it’s an embarrassment to the city.”

Hennessy spoke at the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee as part of a presentation by the Work Group to Re-Envision the Jail, created after the Board of Supervisors in December 2015 refused to spend $215 million on a new jail.

After that vote, the city lost an $80 million grant from the state that would have helped pay for a new facility.

As an alternative to a new jail, the 39-member work group — which includes representatives from agencies from across the city’s criminal justice system — was tasked with finding ways to reduce the inmate population, so the city could close the dilapidated facility without having to build a new one.

The work group estimated San Francisco must reduce bed days by roughly 80,000 a year to drop the average daily population by the more than 200 people that would be required to shutter County Jail. No. 4. The city currently has an average daily population of around 1,330.

The sheriff’s department, district attorney, public defender, adult probation, department of public health and other agencies implemented several alternatives to incarceration in recent years and months. A sweeping bail reform ruling this year by the state court of appeals resulted in more inmates released pretrial than before.

Nearly all of the inmates being released are low-level offenders who are not considered a significant risk to public safety. Inmates who spend 15 days or less in jail make up only 3 percent of the jail’s population, according to a report by the city Controller’s Office.

And nearly all of the solutions proposed by the work group focus on alternatives to incarceration for defendants not facing long jail stays.

Seventy eight percent of bed days are taken up by inmates who spend 180 days or more in jail. Most are people charged with violent felonies, according to the controller’s office. And around 90 percent of those inmates are defendants awaiting trial, according to the sheriff’s department.

The jail has also seen an increase in recent bookings as police have stepped up efforts to arrest drug dealers peddling large amounts of narcotics in the Tenderloin, Civic Center, and UN Plaza, officials said.

To avoid sending inmates to Santa Rita — which could separate families, limit access to programs, counseling and cause a logistical nightmare in shuttling defendants to their court dates in San Francisco — Hennessy asked the committee to begin planning to house more inmates.

She has proposed renovating County Jail No. 6 in San Bruno, but such a project, she said, would cost almost as much as a new jail. Planning alone would cost $9 million to $12 million and should start immediately, she said.

Many in the work group and other city officials, though, remain opposed to a new jail and the Board of Supervisors made no plans Wednesday to go forward with a project.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, a longtime opponent of a new jail, recently secured a grant from the MacArthur Foundation that he believes the city can use to lower the jail population enough to negate a need for a new jail.

He plans to use the money to bring in outside experts to identify ways to reduce recidivism.

“We haven’t yet gone through a rigorous, data-based scientific analysis by an unbiased third party to look at this process,” he said.

He also warned that building a new jail could mirror mistakes made when the city in 2005 spent $45.6 million to build a juvenile justice center. That facility has 150 beds but has a daily population of between 30 and 40 people, he said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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