Argument Continues Over Decrepit Hall of Justice’s Future

The seismically-unsound jail needs to be torn down — but should another be built in its place?

For years politicians have debated the question of what to do with the crumbling, leaky, seismically-unsound Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St. Originally constructed in 1958, its constant issues have spurred the permanent evacuation of the Public Defender’s Office, the Medical Examiner’s Office, the Adult Probation Department, and next year, the District Attorney’s Office. 

What will eventually be left are the courts and the jail cells upstairs. And this is where the debate gets heated: Should San Francisco build a new jail to house its inmates, or should we be moving away from creating more cells, and instead invest the estimated $300 million to rebuild the facility into community resources that help prevent incarceration and recidivism?

In 2016, supervisors rejected an $80 million state grant for the construction of a new jail and instead created a workgroup, Re-Envision the Jail Project, to identify alternatives to incarceration.

On Wednesday, that work group presented at a Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee meeting, as they examined methods to reduce the annual number of jail beds filled from every angle, from cash bail to behavioral health programs that can offer an alternative to incarceration.

“From where we stand today, where do we go next?” Supervisor Rafael Mandelman asked as the hearing launched. “Doing nothing is not an option. We have an obligation to take action and develop a plan to move forward.”

An average of 1,342 people sit in our county jails on any given day. Of those, around 300 are in 850 Bryant St. Predictably (and unfortunately), the latest round of data shows that the majority of people occupying beds in San Francisco County jails are young, Black men. 

Attempts to reduce the number of people in San Francisco jails is a multi-pronged effort, made more difficult by increasing pressure on the San Francisco Police Department to make arrests related to property crime. But on Wednesday, the group assigned to this population reduction conundrum the Re-Envision the Jail Project workgroup provided new data and information not previously heard before. Nevertheless, the decision over whether or not to build a new jail remains uncertain. 

Chesa Boudin from the Public Defender’s Office outlined how the Humphrey case earlier this year can reduce the number of people languishing in jail due to exorbitant money bails that they can’t pay. City public defenders file more than 800 motions per year to reduce bail or replace it with non-monetary conditions. In addition, the office’s pretrial release unit successfully provides representation to people who haven’t been formally charged yet, which Boudin says “could save approximately thousands more jail bed days per year.” 

Jail alternatives for behavioral health issues were also raised. Greg Wagner, acting director of the Department of Public Health, outlined the number beds created through the Hummingbird Navigation Center and other shelters, which are few and far between. In total, 210 people spent 11,566 days in San Francisco’s jail while waiting for beds in behavioral health facilities in the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Analysis of how many beds will need to be created to address this need, and remove people with mental health issues from the criminal justice system, is still pending. 

“I almost feel like this hearing should have been titled ‘Why San Franciscans Should Vote For Proposition C’,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen said, before being reprimanded by the City Attorney’s office for voicing support for a local proposition in a public hearing. If voters pass it in November, Prop. C would more than double the annual resources for addressing our city’s homelessness crisis, by providing housing, shelter, and mental health services for those living on our streets.

District Attorney George Gascón took an interesting approach for an official elected to prosecute those who committed crimes: He pledged to help empty the jail, too.

“We cannot rely on 20th-century tools to address 21st-century problems,” he said.  “From the streets to our jails, the way San Francisco has responded to the growing epidemic of mental illness and substance abuse is not yielding the results that the community deserves. It’s been three years since the city rejected a proposal to build a new jail; it’s long past time to embrace the science, the research, and a new paradigm.”

But, he said the decision about what to do with 850 Bryant shouldn’t be made quite yet. 

“I don’t think the questions today should be we need a new jail or not. I don’t think we’re ready to answer that,”Gascón said. “I think we take a pause, we allow the MacArthur grant [which will provide $2 million to fund five new positions dedicated to reducing the jail population] to come in and help us. We bring all the partners together to do regular check-ins, and to see after that process what are our needs. I’m not saying San Francisco will never need a new jail. The question is when do we need it, what should it look like, and how do we provide the services for all these other populations that will never be served well by the jail system.” 

But Supervisor Aaron Peskin said time is of the essence with this issue. 

“We all know that that is a seismically extremely vulnerable building,” he said. “I don’t want to be a member of the Board of Supervisors and go through what happened in 1906 when our mental institution collapsed, where hundreds of individuals were crushed to death. Every day that we don’t have an earthquake … is another day that we’re getting lucky. I want to understand what the plan is for moving people out of there who are in there? That keeps me awake at night.” 

While the future of 850 Bryant St. remains uncertain, the hearing did highlight the success of working together to solve a multi-faceted problem. 

Roma Guy, today representing her group S.F. Taxpayers for Public Safety, put it perfectly.

“A year and a half ago we couldn’t have produced what we produced today,” she said. “This needs to continue.” 

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