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New Jail Could Be Approved Days Before It’s Rendered Unnecessary 

Wednesday, Dec 2 2015

On Oct. 16, Carlos Argueta and Pascal Krummenacher — a staff attorney and an intern with the Eviction Defense Collaborative — appeared in court at the Hall of Justice. Krummenacher arrived through the courtroom's main door, clad in the hipster mufti of a 20-something; Argueta entered under the escort of armed guards and wore the bright orange jumpsuit of a County Jail inmate.

The pair are charged with murdering a man during a drunken altercation on the night of Sept. 3, but while Argueta is in jail, unable to afford his $2 million bail, Krummenacher is free — on $1 million bail — until a jury determines his innocence or guilt.

Charged with a serious, violent crime, Argueta is not the perfect poster child for San Francisco's inequitable cash bail system, but his jail bed is a hot commodity in the latest City Hall housing battle — this one over housing that includes iron bars and 24/7 armed guards.

On Nov. 12, San Francisco was awarded an $80 million state grant to replace the seismically unsafe County Jails No. 3 and No. 4 at 850 Bryant St. with a brand new $240 million "Rehabilitation Detention Center" nearby.

The grant will not cover the total cost: Mayor Ed Lee is also seeking $215 million in bonds to fund the new jail. Approval for the bond sale rests with the Board of Supervisors, which is engaging in A Night at the Opera-level farce of democratic representation: Lee is pushing to hold the bond vote on Dec. 8, before his ousted appointee, Supervisor Julie Christensen, is replaced by Supervisor-elect Aaron Peskin.

The high-stakes game of musical supervisors will ultimately be a waste of energy. The music stops on Dec. 10, when the Mayor's 10-day window to certify election results and seat Peskin ends. That's also before the Board can take the mandatory second vote required to finalize the approval (or disapproval) of the bond sale.

Meanwhile, on Dec. 16, a federal judge could issue an injunction that would render the political shenanigans moot.

A lawsuit seeking to abolish the use of cash bail in San Francisco was filed in October, with the support of soon-to-be ex-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. The suit argues that San Francisco's system of pretrial detention for defendants who cannot afford cash bail violates the 14th Amendment. Similar lawsuits have successfully overturned cash bail systems in six other municipalities across the country, including Washington, D.C.

The new jail's opponents, such as Lizzie Buchen of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, have long argued that the steadily decreasing number of inmates in the San Francisco system renders a new jail unnecessary. There are enough free beds in County Jail No. 2 on Seventh Street and No. 5 and No. 6, both in San Bruno, to empty the unsafe facilities at 850 Bryant.

If Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers does grant the injunction, the math could get even easier. Approximately 85 percent of the County Jail's inmates are there on pre-trial detention. Without cash bail, as many as half of them could be released. As of Nov. 20, San Francisco was detaining 1,270 people, 713 of whom (56 percent) had been assigned a bail amount by a judge. This means judges have ruled that over half of the city's jail inmates are are safe enough to be released — but only if they have the cash.

It seems only sensible to wait until after Dec. 16 for the Board to determine whether a new jail is worth spending hundreds of millions of dollars, but don't hold your breath. Neither the mayor nor Board President London Breed responded to queries about whether they were even aware of the potential injunction.

As Chico Marx might say, "You can't fool me — there ain't no sanity clause."

About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.


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