Around 1980 I came within a hair's breadth of a long prison sentence for charges I was innocent of, largely because the Public Defender office in the Southern California city was under strong political pressure to not defend me aggressively. Just in time, I got money to hire a great private attorney, we went to trial, and I was acquitted. It was one of the scariest experiences of my life, and it has made me acutely aware of how much justice can depend on income.
A large proportion of San Francisco's jail population, probably half, are in jail because they cannot afford bail before trial. The proportion jailed African-Americans in SF is ten times that of the general population.
People on low, fixed incomes are disproportionately made homeless by rent increases and evictions, and they are vulnerable to arrest for violating laws against Sit/Lie, vehicular housing, and potentially sleeping in parks at night. Homeless seniors and people with mental health and substance abuse issues are also more likely to be profiled for citation and later arrest in newly-gentrified business areas.
Simple justice demands we find other alternatives than building a new jail to perpetuate old injustice. San Francisco has made remarkable progress in reducing its jail population. Now is the time to move forward, not back.
Thursday’s hearing at Neighborhood Services & Safety will focus on the cost-effectiveness of the proposed Jail Rebuild. I urge you to attend this hearing if you are not already planning to do so. The projected cost, $600 million including financing, could give $20 million in services each year over the 30 years required to repay the jail debt. The billion-dollar Housing Trust Fund could be expanded 60% to provide housing to very-low income people being displaced. We could renovate and upgrade over 7,000 low-income apartments. 600 of the City's poorest families could live in subsidized apartments for 30 years. Mental and medical health programs which had been cut for years could be restored and expanded. All of these programs are more effective outside of jail walls and can keep people out of jail in the first place.
I urge you to cancel the proposed “Replacement Jail Project” that has been proposed as part of the Hall of Justice rebuild. Yesterday, the Board of State and Community Corrections recommended against funding for this project, showing the latest sign of opposition and increasing the already unacceptably high cost of this proposal to San Francisco taxpayers. I am writing to let you know that local San Francisco residents and voters are opposed, too, and for many reasons.
First of all, this jail is unnecessary. San Francisco is currently reducing our jail population through the expansion of public health and community services, especially among people who have problems with mental health, substance abuse, and/or homelessness. San Francisco has two empty county jails, and enough existing capacity to handle a shrinking jail population even with the closing of The Hall of Justice jails. Why would you build more space for a shrinking department?
More importantly, the time has come to prioritize community-based alternatives over incarceration. San Francisco has been a pioneer in public-health interventions aimed at public safety, pretrial diversion programs, community courts, and other alternative services. But we cannot fulfill our community’s vision of a more prevention- and safety-oriented justice system in competition with a bloated jail system. Construction of jail cells – even at the proposed replacement level – will divert our resources away from these essential programs. We need expansion of services, and we need to finance that with the money we will save by operating a smaller jail system.
Cancel the jail!