The multi-colored chalk writing outside the county center steps yesterday spelled out simply the focus of the budget hearing happening inside: No more jails.
The inclusion of $44 million in the county’s $1.9 billion budget for initial jail planning and construction drew dozens and dozens of opponents whose comments ranged from impassioned requests for more public consideration to threats of political and personal safety if the county supervisors did not back away from a new correctional facility six years in the making.
The Board of Supervisors ultimately approved its recommended budget after adding $1 million to enhance electronic home monitoring and other alternatives and discussed a desire for more data on the population.
"It’s a lot of money but it may also help with our jail population,” said board President Adrienne Tissier.
The board also added more than $1 million from its realignment funding for re-entry programs through competitive grants to community-based organizations. The budget vote — marked by jeers, chanting and even a few insults directed at individual supervisors by the crowd — came after two and a half hours of public comment by speakers who took aim at Sheriff Greg Munks’ own run-in with Las Vegas police who detained him in a brothel after a law enforcement race, his recent categorization of opponents as non-county residents and county officials’ declarations that they can’t control who is incarcerated. A number of speakers decried Measure A, the half-cent general sales tax on the November ballot, as specifically a means to fund the $155 million jail and vowed its defeat.
Several in the crowded board chambers expressed frustration with the board continuing on with the jail plan despite their repeated demands for reconsideration.
"I’m at my wit’s end ... building this jail is completely immoral, unnecessary and expensive,” said Joseph Rosas.
Tuesday’s budget hearing came days after the Berkeley-based Institute for Law and Policy Planning released a draft report on a re-entry program that Executive Director Alan Kalmanoff said was axed by the county mid-contract because it uncovered flaws that called into question the need for a new jail. Kalmanoff attended the hearing to deliver the report despite it having been terminated but said there is no political agenda other than highlighting conclusions that overcrowding can be alleviated by fixing existing criminal justice problems.
"Jails are for people who are dangerous,” Kalmanoff said before wishing the board luck.
Stephanie Munoz, who said her father was a doctor at Atascadero State Hospital, acknowledged the need for some prisons but called the planned local jail "just a warehouse for feckless people who have been pushed off the economic ladder.”
Pine, the lone dissenter last fall when the board approved the jail, told the crowd he thinks the county can lower its incarceration rate but, with only 688 rated beds for a population of roughly 1,000, not everybody will be fit for release.
"I don’t think all of those 322 people can be out of jail. I just don’t,” he said.
Supervisor Don Horsley, who began talk of a new facility six years ago when still sheriff, said he closed three jails on his watch but fewer facilities do not cap the population. He also used Proposition 36 as an example of a diversion program now largely abandoned because participants tended not to show up. Relying on either of these ideas as examples of how to magically reduce the jail need, he said, "simply is not reality.”
Currently, the new jail on Chemical Way is expected to open in 2015 and require $25 million to $27 million in annual operating expenses. Ground broke in June and jail planners and architects are narrowing down a design. The goal is to keep the current men’s jail open for booking and pre-trial inmates while moving female inmates and men already sentenced to the new building.
Early opposition to a jail several years ago centered on its location, with Redwood City residents worried about a then-preferred spot near the existing Maguire Correctional Facility. The fight has since shifted to the need for a new jail — and in some arguments, even the existing jails — at all and the effort ramped up in recent months as opponents crowded the public comment portion of several Board of Supervisors’ meetings.
"We feel like we’re hitting our heads against a brick wall,” said James Lee of Occupy Redwood City.
He said opponents know county officials can’t directly build schools in East Palo Alto, for example, as alternatives to a new jail but that such comments are "shorthand for your priorities are wrong.”
Micaela Davis of the American Civil Liberties Union told the board its hands are not completely tied in reducing the pretrial jail population and suggested public safety will be enhanced when defendants are on monitoring rather than released on bail with no other supervision.
Presiding Judge Beth Labson Freeman said she offered no position on the county’s budget or jail but explained to the board chambers that each judge offers an independent consideration of cases which is why there are so many different outcomes rather than a uniform response. She said the court does allow electronic home monitoring and other modified sentencing like the sheriff’s work program that keeps inmates with short sentences from jail.
Opponents, who stormed out of the meeting after the budget vote to chant loudly in the hallway, were not mollified by anything county officials offered. Aaron Castle chastised the board for not listening to its own commission reports, conclusions by former county manager David Boesch and published opinion pieces opposing the plan. Like quite a few others, Castle told the board it was jeopardizing its political future.
"I’m angry. We’re going to rip you out of those seats and sit in them,” Castle said.
Michelle Durand can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.