Michelle Durand/Daily Journal
Opponents of a proposed new jail in San Mateo County expressed their concern over plans during the public comment period of the Board of Supervisors meeting yesterday morning.
Ongoing site preparation for a new San Mateo County jail hasn’t dampened opponents who again gathered at the Board of Supervisors meeting to demand they focus on rehabilitation and programming rather than a new incarceration facility.
The standing-room group, a mixture of several organized groups and some individuals who hoisted signs, said the supervisors risk their political careers by continuing forward with the jail and demanded they rethink $44 million in planning funds at the Sept. 25 county budget hearing. By turns for nearly two hours, the opponents also knocked the jail plan as a way to incarcerate more minorities who can be used as free labor, generate federal money and avoid strategizing ways to cut recidivism.
"This is the agenda of the 1 percent,” said Sandy Sanders who said money spent on jails is money that won’t go for more important needs, like schools.
The crowd has made similar entreaties, often when the issue is on the board agenda, and is undaunted by the county not heeding its demands.
"We’re going to keep coming back until you stop the jail,” said Emily Harris of Californians United for a Responsible Budget.
Harris suggested the county follow the example of Contra Costa County which decided not to go forward with a jail.
The county signed off on a new incarceration facility on the former Chemical Way in Redwood City after several years of planning, community meetings and debate over location. The men’s Maguire Correctional Facility is chronically overcrowded and the women’s jail is antiquated, often flooding during winter months.
Currently, the new jail is expected to open in 2015 with a roughly $155 million construction price tag followed by $25 million to $27 million in annual operating expenses. Ground broke in June and jail planners and architects are narrowing down a design.
The preferred option so far is a mid-rise building configuration with administrative/support services in a two-story structure separate from inmate housing which will be located in a three-story building. Both that design and another option separate male and female inmates and take into consideration the needs of inmates with longer or extended stay lengths under the state realignment. Realignment shifted some low-level offenders from state prison to county jails and kept some convicts local rather than sending them to prison.
But for opponents, any jail is the wrong option.
"I’m concerned that our county’s justice system is headed off in a costly and ineffective direction,” said Sabrina Brennan, a candidate for the San Mateo County Harbor District Board of Commissioners.
Many speakers said the overcrowding can be addressed by releasing inmates on their own recognizance prior to trial or offering alternatives to sentencing. Defense attorney Richard Keyes called the amount of money to be spent "outlandish” and cited both a high bail schedule and policy of detaining non-citizens for immigration officials as crowding contributors that can be fixed.
Redwood City resident James Lee said the women’s jail need not be replaced but shut down completely because most of the female inmates are incarcerated for drug or non-violent offenses.
While the Board of Supervisors is not obligated to respond to public comment because the jail was not an agenda item, board President Adrienne Tissier and others tried clarifying the limits of its responsibility for the population.
"We don’t send people to jail. We don’t arrest them. We don’t send them there,” she said. "What we want to do is, if they are there, help them the best we can while they are there.”
Tissier also pointed out that the county does not control school funding so is not choosing a jail over education.
County Manager John Maltbie tried tempering the dissent by saying that decisions leading to the increased jail populations like laws or limits on inmate release are often made by the judiciary or Legislature rather than local supervisors.
"If we’re serious about reducing the population of the jail, we need to have conversations with those who make those decisions,” he said.
He also said that simply not building a jail won’t reduce the population or prevent incarceration.
The crowd appeared unmoved, loudly changing "No more jails” as they left board chambers.
Michelle Durand can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.