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How San Francisco’s DA cut the city’s jail population without jeopardizing public safety

Reducing the jail population during the pandemic is one example of how defunding the police and prison systems—and reinvesting in other areas—could keep communities safer.

How San Francisco’s DA cut the city’s jail population without jeopardizing public safety
[Source Image: 3dsam79/iStock]

San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin ran for his current title on a platform committed to ending mass incarceration, citing how widespread imprisonment affects the families and communities left behind, costs taxpayers money, and fails to truly rehabilitate people who have inflicted harm.

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Speaking on a panel at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival, Boudin explained how his team reduced the number of people incarcerated in order to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak. (Five of the largest known clusters of the coronavirus in the U.S. have occurred inside correctional institutions.) “Between the time that I took office in January and the peak of the epidemic, we were able to reduce our jail population by approximately 40%,” Boudin said. “Now, the fearmongers would tell you if you release people from jail, crime rates are going to go up, and instead we saw the opposite.” Compared to last year, overall crime rates in San Francisco are down more than 20% (though it is seeing the same increase in violent crimes as other cities across the country).

The reason why, Boudin said, is because they looked at why each person was in jail and whether there was an alternative way to handle those circumstances. “We found people, I’m sorry to say, who never should have been in jail in the first place,” he said, including a young woman with no prior criminal record doing time on a misdemeanor conviction while also experiencing a high-risk pregnancy and an elderly woman with severe mental illness who was kept in jail because there was no other facility at which she could receive care. “We were using the jail as a homeless shelter,” he said. “It’s a disgrace, and it’s happening all across the country.”

Boudin was speaking on a panel about criminal justice reform with Patrisse Cullors, cofounder of Black Lives Matter and founder of Reform LA Jails, an initiative to reduce the Los Angeles County Jail population; Jamaal Bowman, an educator and Democratic nominee for New York’s 16th congressional district; and Gina Clayton-Johnson, founder and executive director of Essie Justice Group, a collection of women with incarcerated loved ones working to end mass incarceration.

Cullors echoed how jails serve as homeless shelters and de facto mental health centers, saying it’s the same in Los Angeles County, which has the largest jail system in the world. Those use-cases are also examples of how defunding the police and jails—and reinvesting that money into community resources rather than punitive systems—could make everyone more safe than by giving the funds to law enforcement. “We want to divest out of policing, out of incarceration, out of court systems and surveillance,” she said, “and we want to invest into people being able to not just survive but thrive, and that looks like being able to have access to not just basic necessities, but the necessities that help you be a full human being in this society.”

Those necessities include access to healthy food, adequate public education, and access to mental health care, for people of any age. As a middle school principal, Bowman said it was easier for him to call the police on a student—though he never did—than to call someone who could provide mental health services that student needed.

The BREATHE Act, a bill delivered to Congress created by the Movement for Black Lives and for which Clayton-Johnson is a cocreator, would do just that. The bill would divest taxpayer dollars from police forces, jails, and immigration detention centers and reinvest that money in a new vision of public safety, providing incentives via grants when a state or municipality decides to decriminalize, deincarcerate, or end criminal justice practices such as solitary confinement. “It’s about shifting the attention and the function of our public safety infrastructure away from the [Department of Justice], away from policing, and moving it into health and human services,” she said. More than 105,000 people have signed up to be community sponsors for the act.

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We’ve updated this article with some specifics about San Francisco’s crime stats

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