San Mateo County can learn from Santa Clara on jail planning

San Mateo County can learn from Santa Clara on jail planning  

By Linnea Nelson | Mercury News | 02/15/2012

Last month, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors set a wise and remarkable precedent. Under a law called AB 900, the state invited the county to compete for as much as $100 million to construct new jail space, with taxpayers subsidizing 90 percent of the costs. The supervisors turned their backs on the proposition.

“It’s not only a lot of money, but it’s going to literally cement … a direction that you know will be relatively irreversible for probably three decades,” concluded Supervisor Dave Cortese.

San Mateo County should take a lesson from its neighbor. Not only is the cost of a shiny new lock-up untenable to anyone concerned with the county’s fiscal health and its ability to fund schools, health or social services. The project also would entrench San Mateo County’s criminal justice policy in the business-as-usual mentality that led to the state’s prison overcrowding crisis.

In business-as-usual, people who commit nonviolent crimes such as possession of drugs for personal use, petty theft or vandalism go directly to jail. Many of them have addiction or mental health problems that keep them cycling in and out of prison or jail again and again. The result is a statewide recidivism rate of approximately 70 percent, among the worst in the nation.

If San Mateo County can interrupt this cycle, it will cut its recidivism rate and lessen the need for jail space. This is the responsibility of the local leaders who sit on

the county’s Community Corrections Partnership; they are charged with spending wisely the millions of dollars in realignment funding from the state. The draft local implementation plan is online at the partnership’s website with a link for public comment. The plan likely will be revised before the March 8 vote to submit it to the Board of Supervisors. What is missing from it are substantial proposals to reduce the current jail population.Approximately 71 percent of inmates in San Mateo County’s jails are being held while they wait for a hearing or a trial. Many of them have committed low-level, nonviolent offenses and are in jail not because they present a threat to community safety or won’t show up for court, but because they are simply too poor to afford bail.

There is a fairer and more effective way to supervise people, and it can be implemented quickly and safely. By instituting a robust pretrial assessment program for low-level felony defendants, the county can determine which of those defendants may be released on their own recognizance without risk of flight or danger to others. This would free up jail space that is more appropriately reserved for serious offenders.

San Mateo County already has a Promise to Appear program in place at Maguire Correctional Facility, which releases some defendants charged with misdemeanors. The county could simply expand this program.

Another way to safely reduce the jail population is for the county to expand the use of home detention with or without electronic monitoring for people convicted of low level nonviolent offenses. (San Mateo County already has a monitoring program, but very few people are offered the option to participate in it.) As with pretrial release, electronic monitoring enables an individual to attend school, avoid eviction and stay employed while serving a sentence, minimizing the disruption to individual lives and communities that can lead to further destabilization and crime.

Using jail as a first resort is a monumental waste of dollars and human lives. Alternatives like pretrial release and home detention can be implemented quickly, cost far less than new jail construction and are far more likely to result in less crime and fewer inmates in San Mateo County.

Linnea Nelson is a fellow at the Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Project of the ACLU of Northern California. She wrote this for this newspaper.

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