With tony towns like Palo Alto and Woodside — where Meg Whitman and Mark Zuckerberg hang their hats — San Mateo County isn't exactly rife with urban problems. But like nearly everywhere else in California, San Mateo is dealing with overcrowding in the criminal justice system. The county jail for male prisoners is at 123 percent capacity, and will be even more burdened beginning Oct. 1, when the Supreme Court-mandated "realignment" — intended to relieve California state prisons' notorious overcrowding — keeps "nonviolent, non-sexual and non-serious" offenders jailed at the county level.
But there is extra jail space available in San Mateo County — it's just not San Mateo's. The San Francisco County Jail's main holding pens are in San Bruno, where one jail — County Jail No. 6, with space for 372 prisoners — has been used for nearly two years to train sheriff's deputies. With S.F. county jails 1,000 prisoners under capacity, Jail No. 6 has not been needed to house convicts.
This being San Francisco, the surprising surplus of a valuable resource has not been put to profitable use. A few years ago, the state prisons were close to finalizing a deal with the Sheriff to house prisoners in Jail No. 6 who were close to finishing out their sentences, but the money never materialized. Recently, San Mateo went as far as to ask if San Francisco had space for San Mateo's prisoners, according to Sheriff Capt. Paul Miyamoto, one of the candidates to replace longtime Sheriff Michael Hennessey in the November election. There's precedent for that: In the early 1990s, the jail contracted with Alameda County to house extra East Bay prisoners.
But such a contract would have required legislation, and now, it's too late. Realignment looms, and the county jail system expects to receive 300 prisoners within the first 90 to 100 days, and then 30 to 40 every month thereafter for a total of 700 new prisoners by the end of the fiscal year.
Which, at least, is realignment relief. "We're in a great position for the initial [realignment] influx," Miyamoto said. If there's excess space in the future, "some sort of revenue-generating situation" might be the best use for an under-capacity jail system, but the main thing "is to make sure it doesn't sit there unused," he added. But with San Francisco's recidivism rate at 77.8 percent — and 80 percent of the jail's 1,458 prisoners awaiting court dates — vacant jails appear to be a problem of the past.