This letter is sent to you on behalf of Sin Barras, a local grassroots group dedicated to prison abolition and alternatives to incarceration.
We support the Sheriff’s goals of reducing overcrowding and making constructive programs available to those in need, but believe that the proposed jail expansion cannot guarantee achievement of those goals. Claims that the new facility would reduce overcrowding and free up programming space at the Main Jail are predicated on assumptions of the jail population remaining stable well into the future.
According to the proposal, 64 new beds at the Rountree facility would allow for the removal of temporary beds that now fill the Main Jail’s “day areas,” making programming once again possible in those spaces. But if there is another increase in the number of state prisoners sent to to the county jail, if there is an influx of local offenders, or if the jail population increases for any other reason, there is nothing to stop temporary beds from once again pushing programs out of the “day areas.” When this comes to pass, we will be left with a larger, but still overcrowded and still program-deficient jail. The last two decades of prison expansion in California show that adding more beds does not reduce overcrowding; that we are in this situation now is a testament to that fact. When we build beds, we eventually fill them, and then some.
Importantly, the facility would not open until at least November 2016, until which time overcrowding and inadequate programming would continue unabated. Three years is ample time to improve and expand the county’s existing Custody Alternatives Program, implement a host of sentencing reforms, and establish more options for those who cannot afford bail. Santa Cruz is already a leader in these fields, and should continue to push for innovative responses to problems in our criminal justice system. For example, 370 individuals have been part of the electronic monitoring program since the initiation of AB 109. Fewer than 4% have committed a new crime or returned to custody for technical violations. Changing the qualifying criteria for this highly successful program to increase the number of eligible inmates could further reduce overcrowding and free up programming space.
In addition to these reforms, Santa Cruz County could divert people from being cycled through the jail by strengthening and expanding community-based programs outside. Community programs are more effective and less costly than incarceration. Each person held behind bars in Santa Cruz County costs taxpayers an average of $97.17 per day. Month for month, it is far cheaper to provide affordable permanent housing for the homeless than to lock them up for petty offenses. Research and best practices show that transitional housing serves as a crucial stepping stone toward self-sufficiency and is proven to improve public safety and decrease recidivism. The more people who get services and treatment in the community for homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness and trauma, etc., the fewer will end up in jail and require services inside.
While there are many partial solutions to the challenges facing our community, there is no silver bullet. When we resort to incarceration, we further destabilize the lives of those who are most in need of support. True rehabilitation can hardly take place in a setting where human beings are fenced in, treated like wild animals. A better way to help someone re-integrate to the outside world is to let them join it, and provide ongoing support in the forms mentioned above, while regularly evaluating the efficacy of various methods of service delivery.
We commend the Sheriff for taking seriously the need for jail reform, but we firmly believe that re-opening an unused facility will not solve the problems of overcrowding and an endlessly-expanding prison system. Improving re-entry programs inside the jail is a step in the right direction, but only if it is paired with the commitment to decrease the jail population overall. We know that building alternatives to incarceration is a long-term process. If the proposal does in fact pass, we demand that the Sheriff and Board of Supervisors work diligently over the next few years, with allies in the community, to address the root causes of overcrowding. This means advocating for social services outside of the jail locally, and also recognizing our responsibility as a leading county in realignment to push for statewide bail and sentencing reform.
For these reasons, the members of Sin Barras urge you to reject this proposal and support alternatives to incarceration that do not involve jail expansion.