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The Black Hole of San Francisco 

This jail is a filthy, unhealthy, decrepit, barbaric nightmare. This jail will probably collapse and kill hundreds if there is a significant earthquake. The city of San Francisco keeps using this unconstitutional hellhole because people who call t

Wednesday, Aug 27 1997
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Clearly, Schiraldi and his allies genuinely believe that community-based alternatives offer a better approach to dealing with crime than mass incarceration. But they also have a huge financial incentive to oppose the construction of jails. Lack of jail space keeps pressure on the judicial system to fund and use nonprofit alternatives to incarceration.

In both '92 and '94, Schiraldi and company claimed that Hennessey was attempting a massive and unnecessary jail expansion that threatened other city services. Hennessey was asking for a 768-bed jail. Schiraldi said a jail offering a capacity of about half that size was all that was needed.

Schiraldi also played the race card. He trotted out South African jail statistics to show that San Francisco had an incarceration rate of African-Americans 10 times that of the land of apartheid. Schiraldi added to the race argument in 1994. He told voters that the money proposed to be used to build a new jail would be enough to house every homeless person in San Francisco in a nice apartment.

The arguments about minorities and the homeless had little to do with the need for jail space. But they attracted votes from liberal constituencies and helped defeat the jail bond issues.

In an interview this month, Schiraldi continued to maintain that it would be possible to move as many as 557 inmates (the total population of Jail No. 3) out of San Francisco's jail system and into community-based organizations. He said the vast majority of people in the city's jails are there for nonviolent, "meatball" offenses.

"If Hennessey is telling you different, then he's making the cynical argument of a man who's been in the job too long," Schiraldi said.

Whether Hennessey has outlived his welcome as sheriff is a matter of opinion. Schiraldi's assertion -- that community-based alternatives can substitute for a new jail -- is not.

It is simply, empirically incorrect.

Schiraldi has a solution to the Jail No. 3 dilemma: Tear down the San Bruno facility. Don't replace it. Use the money spent there to fund more nonprofits and put the inmates into their care.

On many levels, his argument ignores reality.
Regardless of what Michael Hennessey or Vincent Schiraldi thinks or believes, trial judges determine whether criminal defendants go to, or get out of, jail. Judges say when defendants can and cannot be released from jail before trial. After trial, judges impose the sentences that put defendants in jail, or release them to alternative programs.

On average, roughly 90 percent of the inmates at San Bruno's Jail No. 3 are pretrial detainees -- that is, they have been charged with crimes and are awaiting trial.

When a defendant is booked on a criminal charge, he or she has four options for avoiding a pretrial stay in jail. All of these methods of pretrial release seem to be used to maximal levels in San Francisco.

Citation Release If someone is arrested on a misdemeanor charge -- say, petty theft -- the sheriff has the power to cite and release the defendant. In the vast majority of such cases, he does just that.

Bail Shortly after a person is arrested on a felony charge, a judge will set bail -- that is, an amount of money to be put up by the defendant to ensure he or she will show up to trial. If bail is posted, the defendant is released from jail.

Own Recognizance Release If a defendant fails to make bail, someone from the nonprofit Own Recognizance Project visits and draws up a packet of biographical information that is presented to a judge at arraignment. The judge decides whether to release the defendant without bail, based on his background.

Supervised Pretrial Release If a defendant is not released on his own recognizance, he or she gets a second bite at the pretrial release apple: the supervised pretrial release project. In this program, pretrial supervision workers compile a defendant profile and present it to the judge. If the judge agrees, the defendant is released to nonprofit treatment programs, mostly drug rehabilitation efforts, until trial.

Exact statistics are hard to come by, but it's accurate to say that San Francisco has one of the most liberal pretrial release systems in the country, and that tens of thousands of defendants are released from jail each year before trial under all the levels of pretrial release offered in this city.

If a defendant fails to gain any of these possible forms of release, he or she has: committed serious crimes or violent crimes; accumulated a scary criminal record; committed crimes in other counties; or been unable to prove he or she is a U.S. citizen.

There is another category of pretrial detainee in Jail No. 3: people who were convicted of crimes and given probated sentences -- and then violated the terms of their probation. Under current justice system practices, these people -- who were put in a program that allowed them to avoid incarceration and then failed to follow that program -- cannot, for any reason, be released prior to trial.

About 10 percent of the population at Jail No. 3 is composed of post-trial detainees -- people who have been found guilty and are serving a jail sentence or are awaiting transfer to a state prison. These people are in jail by court order -- that is, criminal conviction. Unless those court orders are reversed or changed, these people must remain incarcerated.

In short, San Francisco is not, by any reasonable measure, ruled by a gulag mentality. Pretrial release is used to a maximum. Studies of the jail population show that most of those in stir simply cannot be released under current rules of the justice system -- rules that are unlikely to change soon.

On Aug. 13, the San Francisco jail system held 1,600 inmates who were awaiting trial. The vast majority of these inmates were convicted criminals who had violated probation. They were completely ineligible for pretrial release under any circumstance.

About The Author

George Cothran

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