San Francisco Jails Half Empty: Sheriff

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi credits a focus on diversion programs for the drop in inmates.

The proof is in the numbers – Ross Mirkarimi, San Francisco sheriff, said his jails are sitting half empty, despite the California realignment plan that pushed inmates from prisons into county jails.

Of the four open jail sites, three in the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco and one in San Bruno, there’s space for a total of 2,450 inmates, Mirkarimi said. On Thursday, there were 1,246 or 51-percent of capacity.

“I’m the first sheriff to preside over this department in San Francisco’s history that is experiencing one of the lowest jail populations ever, which makes our jails one of the most under-crowded in the United States,” Mirkarimi added.

According to the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, the average daily prisoner population has decreased since 2009, when that figures was 1,937. So far this year, accounting for January and February, that figure is 1,395.

But there’s another number the sheriff said is just as, if not more, important: 1,460. That’s the number of people who are serving a sentence outside jail walls, going through diversion programs and supervised release instead. Mirkarimi pointed to this as the reason why San Francisco has become a pioneer in the criminal justice system.

“This may be a little racy to say, but the war on drugs has failed in this country, and I think we overbuilt prisons and county jails in response to that war,” he said.

He added the focus on diversion has paid dividends. “We’re seeing much greater results in diverting people through drug court and helping them with, if substance abuse disorder is the issue, they’re getting that treatment. We don’t have to incarcerate.”

Prison reform groups in the Bay Area are still hoping San Francisco will take it a step further. Paul Boden leads the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which fights for funding for affordable housing and what he called “the decriminalization of the homeless population.”

Though he is hopeful of change in preventing recidivism, Boden said the problem still lies in the front end of the process.

“We needed that stuff in the community. If people had access to residential treatment, if people had access to good mental health care, if people had access to affordable housing ,they wouldn’t be in jail in the first place,” Boden said.

There’ve been talks in San Francisco about building a brand new jail, with one plan estimating the cost in the neighborhood of 600-million dollars.

Both Boden and Sheriff Mirkarimi agree there needs to be repair and or replacement of the two jail sites at the Hall of Justice, which have been deemed seismically unsafe. However, even Mirkarimi questions just how much else needs to be done.

“It begs the question, because of the declining jail population, will we even need a new jail? And I think that’s open for discussion,” Mirkarimi said.

He was also celebrating the first SF Sheriff’s Department graduation of deputies, 17 of them, on Thursday – the first in five years.

Along with those deputies, San Francisco Police Department has indicated that it will be hiring roughly 300 more police officers during the next five years, adding that will likely increase the number of arrests. Mirkarimi still believes it won’t necessarily translate into a higher inmate population, as long as the officers and deputies on the streets get creative.

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