Opponents of New San Francisco Jail Scramble to Head Off Project

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San Francisco's most modern detention facility, County Jail #5 in San Bruno, employs a "direct supervision" pod design. (San Francisco Department of Public Works)

Update, 3:07 p.m. Wednesday Dec. 2:
San Francisco sheriff's deputies arrested five protesters who chained themselves together in the city's Board of Supervisors chambers in an attempt to delay a committee vote on legislation to fund a new jail.

Budget and Finance Committee chair Mark Farrell said the vote scheduled for Wednesday would go forward in the afternoon. He said the package of two ordinances and two resolutions tied to funding the proposed facility must pass committee today for the city to receive an $80 million grant from the state, which would pay for about one-third of the project.

"I think it's outrageous that they're trying to steamroll the process before the hearing on alternatives tomorrow," said Tash Nguyen, an activist with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, as she sat on the floor of the board chambers chained to other protesters.

Firefighters separated Nguyen, Katie Loncke and Alicia Bell. They were arrested under suspicion of trespassing in a public building, along with Brooke Anderson and Andrew Szeto.


"What we saw before was the first time that I've seen ... PVC pipes in the chambers, which raises a new level of public safety concerns," Farrell said, as the meeting resumed at 3 p.m.

Update, 12:50 p.m. Wednesday Dec. 2:
A few dozen protesters opposed to San Francisco building a new jail have filled the city Board of Supervisors chambers and have disrupted a committee meeting where supervisors were about to consider legislation that would fund the proposed facility.

The group has been chanting loudly since shortly before noon, demanding a continuance. A line of sheriff's deputies is separating the crowd from the supervisors.

Original Post, 10:15 a.m. Wednesday Dec. 2:
Fast-track legislation that would approve funding for a new $240 million jail facility heads to a Board of Supervisors committee Wednesday.

Votes on the project in the coming weeks promise to test the power of the board's new progressive majority, as opponents of the new jail scurry to head off a project that's been eight years in the making.

The debate comes to a head amid broad changes to San Francisco and California's criminal justice system. When the city started planning a facility to replace two outdated and unsafe jails in the Hall of Justice, it was housing close to twice the number of inmates it's currently holding. That was before "realignment," an ambitious program to cut the population of California prisons by redirecting inmates formerly incarcerated at the state level to county jails.

James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, a corrections research group, says realignment presented counties with a choice.

"They could either continue to put the people in the jail who used to be in state prison, or they could do things with them by giving them split sentences and getting them released on probation for supervision, and that’s what San Francisco has done," he said at a Tuesday press conference releasing a study on the city's criminal justice policies.

"San Francisco is doing something about mass incarceration, and it’s doing it in a very safe manner," Austin said. "If you look at the crime rate, it has dropped significantly as it has implemented these reforms."

So why would the city, widely lauded for reducing incarceration and with a jail system that's nowhere near capacity, need a new lockup?

Proponents, including Mayor Ed Lee and the Sheriff's Department, contend that some level of replacement is needed for the 828 beds at County Jails 3 and 4 on the upper floors of the Hall of Justice.

"We’re talking about replacing a facility that has close to 900 beds with 384 beds, and those 384 beds will be dedicated to people with mental health issues, co-occurring substance abuse issues," Sheriff-elect Vicki Hennessy said Tuesday.

The idea of a "mental health jail" roils opponents, including District Attorney George Gascón.

"Mental health experts are telling us that incarceration is not a solution nor a place to treat mental health," he said at the Tuesday press conference with James Austin. "What San Francisco needs today is mental health facilities and not a new jail."

Wednesday's hearing on the new jail proposal comes sooner than anticipated.

Board of Supervisors President London Breed waived a required 30-day waiting period for a committee to hear new legislation at Mayor Lee's request. The timing gave rise to speculation that the mayor and his allies on the board were trying to push the legislation through before progressive Aaron Peskin takes office, establishing a left-leaning majority that might block the jail plan.

But Lee told the San Francisco Chronicle Tuesday that he would certify Peskin's election, along with the rest of voters' decisions, in time for the new supervisor to take office next Tuesday, when the jail legislation is likely to be heard by the full board.

Opponents still say the project is being rushed. They say that anticipated changes to San Francisco's bail system could further cut the city's inmate population -- and reduce the need for a new jail.

Gascón is pushing a new predictive tool that could inform judges about the likelihood any given arrestee would reoffend, hurt someone or fail to show up for his or her court date, reducing the number of inmates held simply because they can't afford to post bail.

The city's cash bail system is also being challenged in federal court. That lawsuit is headed for an injunction hearing Dec. 16.

"If this lawsuit is successful, if San Francisco settles this lawsuit the way that other municipalities have, then that would dramatically reduce the jail population," said Lizzie Buchen, an advocacy coordinator with Californians United for a Responsible Budget. The organization is part of a coalition that opposes San Francisco's new jail.

Supervisor Jane Kim said the project also seems rushed. She and Breed are holding a hearing Thursday on "alternatives to incarceration."

"The public defender and our district attorney have really been pushing this issue," Kim said, referring to an unlikely alliance against the new jail. "They get to see it because they’re on the front lines, but I don’t think that we as a city have adequately answered these questions."

There's another reason to rush the project approval, according to the pro-jail camp -- $80 million in state grant funding awarded to San Francisco Nov. 12. The grant requires the city to purchase land for the proposed project within 90 days of the award, and San Francisco's grant application promised the approval of nearly $14 million within 30 days. If you're counting, that's a deadline that looms over the Dec. 8 Board of Supervisors meeting.

To Buchen, the state funding represents a corruption of realignment.

She said in an interview that while realignment was driven in part by the need to reduce prison overcrowding after a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the initiative was also meant to move the state away from failed prison and jail policies.

"That’s not how it played out in most places in California," Buchen said. "And part of the reason that it’s not playing out that way is because the state has also been funding jail expansion -- more than $2.2 billion."

Like Gascón, she rejects the concept of a "mental health jail" and wants the city to spend more on services for people before they're incarcerated.

"I mean it’s shocking. It seems cruel to me," she said. "The message San Francisco is sending to its residents is: If you're poor, we will help you out if you are locked up. We’ll give you programs, we’ll give you mental health services if you’re in our jail. But if you’re in the community, then those programs just keep getting cut."

Sheriff-elect Hennessy said she understands the opposition to building a new jail instead of funding affordable housing and community mental health.

"But I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition," she said.

Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Freeman agrees. He said in an interview that building a new jail facility "isn’t about mass incarceration -- industrial jail complex. This is about a more holistic approach to criminal justice, to the treatment of mentally ill offenders."

Researcher Austin is on both sides of the debate.

His report, published through the San Francisco Controller's Office, casts doubt on whether an existing closed jail in San Bruno could satisfy the city's needs if it decides not to build a new facility.

"My personal opinion on all of this is that San Francisco has a great deal to be proud of in terms of what it has done," Austin said. "It’s got some pretty big issues ahead in terms of what to do with the residual population. Can you lower the population? Yes, it can be lowered, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work."


He added that the city's jail population has been "distilled" and that remaining inmates are "a high-security, high-program-need group."