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SF’s unprecedented look at jail population quantifies racial disparity and mental health needs

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    San Francisco spent $119.5 million across 60 different programs last year to try and keep people out of jail after they got caught up in the criminal justice system.

    The City is relying on these programs and new ones funded through Mayor Ed Lee’s budget proposal, which the Board of Supervisors is expected to approve on July 18, to reduce the jail population by hundreds of inmates.

    Last fiscal year, these programs served 82,400 participants. The count is based on program enrollment, not specific individuals, which means the same person may be counted more than once.

    The mayor highlighted on June 22 that his budget proposal included spending an additional $27 million on programs to keep people out of jail.

    These services are meant to address the severe racial disparities found in the jail and better treat those suffering from substance abuse and mental illness.

    The City has a better understanding of those ending up in jail after an unprecedented working group, involving 37 persons from city departments and community groups, studied jail population demographics over eight months last year and examined the 60 city-funded criminal justice programs ranging from pre-trial release to reentry services.

    The takeaway is that city and community leaders are now in agreement on a path forward. They have acknowledged that not everyone in jail should be in jail and that improved services, along with better coordination among city departments, are needed.

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    The group’s demographic analysis shows that the people spending the most days in jail are disproportionately young and black.

    In 2015, 53 percent of inmates in jail were black when they comprised about 5 percent of The City’s total population. Decades ago, when The City’s black population was 15 percent, blacks still comprised more than 50 percent of the jail population.

    The majority of the jail population in 2015 was young — 56 percent were under the age of 35. Prisoners ages 18 to 25 comprised 28 percent of the jail population, but that age group made up only 12 percent of The City’s population.

    Of the 13,544 total inmates who passed through the jails in 2015, 36 percent — or 4,918 — received treatment from the jail’s mental health services; 3,213 had more than one visit to the jail mental health service indicating a greater need; and 7 percent to 14 percent — between 1,025 and 1,900 — were diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

    The percentage of those with serious mental illness in San Francisco’s jails is below the national average of 20 percent.

    But inmates in need of mental health services are often kept waiting in jail even after The City’s collaborative courts decide they should receive treatment instead.

    In 2015, about 360 inmates were kept waiting in jail for a combined 18,000 days for slots to open up in residential treatment programs or locked psychiatric facilities.

    The Department of Public Health plans to open at least 116 more mental health beds to reduce those wait times.

    Jailed inmates are receiving more attention than usual as a result of The City’s need to shut down County Jail Nos. 3 and 4 at the Hall of Justice due to what are widely considered deplorable conditions. A plan to build a new jail next door was defeated by those who argued that increased services, not new jail beds, was the correct response.

    Instead the sheriff would use County Jail No. 2 at 425 Seventh St. and County Jail No. 5 in San Bruno. The sheriff is also examining reopening County Jail No. 6 in the event the population doesn’t decline.

    After the proposal for the new jail was defeated by the Board of Supervisors in December 2015, the assembled 37-member “Work Group to Re-Envision the Jail Replacement Project” met for about one year and included employees with the Department of Public Health, Sheriff’s Department, Police Department, Coalition on Homelessness, Bayview Hunters Point Foundation and Californians United for a Responsible Budget.

    The group’s work, culminating in a final report presented to the Board of Supervisors and more recently to the Public Health Commission on June 20, has seemingly diffused a once politically charged debate.

    Public Health Director Barbara Garcia, a co-chair of the working group, said at the June meeting that “we did agree to the fact that the jail population needs all of us to make sure that [inmates] are safe in seismically safe areas and also that they get the type of services that they need.”

    Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, another co-chair of the working group, said reducing the jail population would come down to “a lot of behavioral health and medical diversions.”

    “As the sheriff, I am responsible for running the jail but I am not the person who puts the people into the jail. That leaves me in an interesting position,” Hennessy said. She said she wanted to “give them the best care I can while they are in our jails” and improve their chances to not reoffend.

    The ultimate success of the effort will come down to the numbers. Without County Jail Nos. 3, 4 and 6, the jail system has 1,238 beds that can accommodate an average daily population of 1,064 to 1,126. At the time of the analysis, the average daily population last year through June 2016 was 1,292, which means there would need to be a decrease by between 166 and 228 inmates to shutter the Hall of Justice jails without adding jail beds elsewhere.

    “We have people today, especially from their health status and their racial status, who do not need to be criminalized or go to jail,” said Roma Guy, head of Taxpayers for Public Safety and a working group co-chair.
    She emphasized the ongoing racial disparity in the jails and called on the Health Commission to hold more accountable the city-contracted programs to address it.

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    “We need to do little things and big things,” Guy said.

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