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OP-ED: Our justice system needs change
August 16, 2012, 05:00 AM By Bob Cushman

Bob Cushman

Our San Mateo County justice system is headed off into an expensive, ineffective direction. Our local justice system officials resist adopting modern, evidenced-based practices to reduce the 76 percent of people in our jails pending trial. This resistance to reform bloats the number of prisoners in the San Mateo County jails.  

We devote the bulk of our expensive jail bed space to incarcerate people who are technically innocent, some of whom will not be convicted at all and many who will be convicted of a lesser crime. Prisoners serving sentences occupy only one-quarter of the bed space.

We are out of step with the practices of other jurisdictions. Pretrial prisoners make up only 53 percent of the jail in Orange County. San Joaquin, Santa Cruz and Sacramento counties all have lower percentages of pretrial inmates. In April, 54 percent of the inmates in the Santa Cruz County Jail were pretrial prisoners.

The 2012 San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury has called for reform. In 2011, the county hired the independent Pretrial Justice Institute to conduct an assessment. Its report was widely discounted and ignored.

Meanwhile, the daily cost of incarcerating one inmate at the Maguire Correctional Facility is $169.92; the daily cost of incarcerating one woman in the Women’s Correctional Center is $227.29. Compare this with the $7-$10 per day cost of electronic monitoring in the community.

Our pretrial practices provide but one example of a justice system that goes to extremes to avoid risk — both political risk and public safety risk. This theme continues on as defendants flow through the key case processing points from arrest to the conclusion of their sentences. Jail is the preferred sanctioning option in our county; every other option is described as an "alternative to jail” and viewed as less than satisfactory, as if the offender is "getting off.” We overemphasize both the severity of sanctions and length of supervision.

We do not focus our resources on the truly dangerous, those who can harm us. We have an abundance of jail bed space to lock up people we are afraid of. But we also jail people we are upset with, and people we don’t know what else to do with. Our jails are not viewed as "limited purpose” facilities. Most anyone can be admitted.

Sadly, there is no evidence that the San Mateo County response makes anyone safer. It bloats the workload of the entire justice system and bolsters the belief that we need more jail bed space.

Our county justice system is not managed at the justice system-wide level. It works like a large plumbing system — separate pipes operated by distinctly different, fiercely independent agencies, held together only by the largely unmanaged workload flowing through the apparatus. This causes the workload to seek its own level. With no policy-level, system-wide coordination/management mechanism to turn to, justice agency leaders believe the only way to keep up with the growing workload is to seek more resources.

We are in danger of building a jail that we will not be able to afford to open and operate. The county leadership decided to build a $155 million new jail without going to the voters for approval. At $40 million a year, the cost of operating it will exceed the cost of construction in less than four years. Thus, it is the operating costs that should get our attention. These will be ongoing, every year for the next 30-40 years, and with annual increases in salaries and benefits.

We should not increase the number of employees, or their influence. We need to control pension and benefit costs. The 2012 civil grand jury has sounded the alarm: The average annual salary of a county employee was $82,464. In addition, San Mateo County paid out 61 cents in benefits for every $1 it paid in salary.

Our county budget crisis is exacerbated by jail expansion and justice system-wide management practices. In November, San Mateo County voters will decide whether to increase the sales tax by one-half percent. This will raise approximately $60 million each year for the next 10 years. This money is to be used to avoid looming budget cuts.

There are many areas of county government that are suffering; many of these are well run. All the perceived excesses seem to have been squeezed out of many county operations.  

This is not true of the administration of justice. The system, as it now operates, is too resistant to change and too self-serving. It threatens to break the bank. This financial drag should not be allowed to continue, or get even worse.

The justice system-wide challenge is to manage the workload so that San Mateo County can operate the men’s jail at Maguire within its authorized rated bed space limit.

Bob Cushman has provided consulting services to police, courts and corrections agencies throughout the United States for more than 40 years. He is retired and lives in Foster City.

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