Wednesday, December 16, 2015

No New Jail in San Francisco... Now What?

The long-standing debate about the construction of an alternative to San Francisco's Jail no. 4 at 850 Bryant ended yesterday with a victory for the jail opponents. The supervisors declined to allocate funding to the new building. The advocates who fought against the new jail tooth and nail took to social media to proclaim their victory.

Unfortunately, the alternative--keeping the situation as it is--does not strike me as something to feel particularly victorious about. As I told the Chronicle the day before the vote, the outcome is dismal either way.

The anti-jail advocates are right in saying that we have been housing people that should not have been incarcerated in the first place, and that the high percentage of people with mental illness in the jail suggests that what we need is a mental institution, not a correctional one. They are also right in fearing the construction of a building with more capacity, because our collective experience with incarceration is that new beds tend to fill with new inmates.

I'm sympathetic to these arguments, but they are also somewhat short-sighted. An increase in incarceration is not the only evil under the sun. Unsound, unhealthy incarceration conditions are very problematic as well. Since the existing jail is seismically unsound and dilapidated, the result of the anti-jail victory is basically a temporary return to the status quo, which is dangerous and undesirable. And in the long run, if Jail no. 4 ceases to be operative and there's no alternative, the concern is that other jails will become overcrowded and unhealthy.

This is not the first adverse incentive of the move to close down prisons. When prison budgets are cut without an equivalent reduction in prison populations, what you get is less prisons and more overcrowding in existing, inadequate facilities. 

So, what's to be done? The only way out of this maze of bad alternatives is to do the hard work of an empirical survey. Let's analyze the San Francisco jail population. How many people are there because of a sick money bail system who could otherwise be out on O.R.? How many people should be receiving medical treatment that they can better get in a medical facility? How many people are doing long, realignment-type time in an institution unsuited for a lengthy stay? A budget cut on its own does not lead to a cut in incarceration. It's time, indeed, to move to another system of rationing punishment: return on investment.

Fueling the mental health system and reforming the money bail system (hopefully by legislating the bail bonds industry out of existence) costs money. Possibly a lot of it. But it has to be properly budgeted and invested. Just saying "no" without providing, and budgeting for, a viable alternative, may be touted as a victory, but it leaves San Francisco jail inmates in the lurch.

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