By Nicole Jones
As realignment is becoming a reality in California, counties are scrambling to put together plans to deal with thousands of new offenders who will become their responsibility. Fundamentally, counties face a choice: Invest in more jail space to lock people up, or figure out other ways to handle those who commit crimes.
KALW’s Nicole Jones went to San Mateo county to see how it’s dealing with this difficult choice. (Transcript after the jump.)
NICOLE JONES: Hundreds of people are gathered outside Justice Hall in Redwood City. They’re here to demonstrate to the world, that people who get caught up in the criminal justice system can change – if they’re given recovery services.
LINNELL BONNER: You know, I’ve been doing drugs for 19 years, so this is a big movement for me.
Linnell Bonner has been clean for one year.
BONNER: Recovery really does work. Oh and we look super good.
About 70% of the people in San Mateo County jails have substance abuse problems. Because of that, the county has started to look at crime in a new way, says Superior Court Judge Richard Livermore.
JUDGE RICHARD LIVERMORE: We have a huge sea change from the old convict-and-incarcerate attitude and if it’s a substance abuse issue we want to be as good about it as we possibly can to let us see what we can do to truly understand what makes this defendant work. If it’s a substance abuse issue, we need to address it.
That means investing in things like substance abuse programs and relying less on locking people up. Over the past decade, San Mateo County has developed a wide range of alternative programs for drug offenders. San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks says the county has invested so much in alternatives, that they’ve actually gotten rid of jail space.
SHERIFF GREG MUNKS: Over the last 15 years we’ve lost about 380 beds to our system.
That means, the jail is often overcrowded with not enough beds for inmates.
MUNKS: So we really created our own overcrowding problem and now we’re trying to address that.
Munks is proposing to build a new jail with 750 beds in downtown Redwood City. And with realignment right around the corner, he says it needs to happen fast.
MUNKS: I’ve been in this business for 34 years and this is the most significant shift and change we have experienced in the criminal justice system. It is big. It is huge.
Under the state’s prison realignment program, San Mateo County is expected to get 300 new inmates over the next year. The new jail would make space for these inmates. It would also cost up to $165 million dollars to build, and another $30 million a year to operate.
As San Mateo County continues to struggle with a $50 million structural deficit, Supervisor Dave Pine says that money will be hard to find. And it very well may have to come from the sorts of programs that keep people from re-offending.
DAVE PINE: When we think about public safety, to me it’s more than just courts and jails. Public safety is not just courts and jail. It’s also preventative programs, substance abuse programs; it’s trying to help people from not getting in jail in the first place.
Pine says there are a lot of people in jail that don’t need to be there – like people who are awaiting trial and can’t afford bail.
PINE: I do think that the study that we received, showing that our county has an extraordinary high number of people awaiting sentencing, should give us pause. We should investigate whether or not some of those individuals could be out on their own.
Jails tend to work in one way, Pine says: If you build them, you’ll fill them up instead of pursuing alternatives. But Sheriff Munks is adamant that’s not the case in San Mateo County.
MUNKS: We use our jail system judiciously. We do not just throw low-level offenders in for no reason. People that are in custody, we’re pretty certain are people that need to be in custody for one reason or another. This isn’t a building project; it’s a reform effort. What we want is to design and build a facility that will help facilitate that process.
Back at the march, Jason Wright says even in San Mateo County, there are many people in jail who’d be better off in treatment.
WRIGHT: A lot of people think drug addicts need to be locked up and that we’re bad people. A lot of us have done bad things, but most of us wouldn’t have done those things if we weren’t under the influence, kind of being controlled by this addiction
Wright has been in and out of state prison for decades on drug-related, non-violent crimes.
WRIGHT: They started locking me up, throwing me in these cages and then I went to prison, so it was like a revolving door for me, where I would be clean in jail or prison and get out and just go back to getting high.
Now at 42, Wright is living in a treatment center sponsored by the county. He’s been clean for eight months and thinks he’s finally turning his life around.
WRIGHT: People don’t have to take it as long as I did. I see a lot of young people getting it, learning it and having phenomenal lives.
Under realignment, a person like Wright may get the chance to change earlier. Instead of prison, he’d be dealt with at the county level. The only question is what the county level will look after October 1st, when realignment becomes real.
In Redwood City, I’m Nicole Jones for Crosscurrents.
Nicole Jones is a reporter with the UC Berkeley Graduate school of Journalism. What are your thoughts on the state’s realignment plan? Do you know how it will affect your county? Let us know on our Facebook page.