In summary

Santa Clara County will decide whether to build a new jail or continue to focus on expanding safe alternatives to incarceration.

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By Susan Ellenberg

Susan Ellenberg is vice president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

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Sheila James Kuehl

Sheila James Kuehl is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

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Keith Carson, Special to CalMatters

Keith Carson is president of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

The dichotomy is often presented as “Jail or No Jail,” but the real distinction is failure or success. 

Failure is poverty, inequality, unemployment, high rates of displacement, foreclosure, eviction, gentrification and a lack of quality education in our communities. 

Failure is accepting the no-exit cycle of jail, emergency rooms and the streets.

Failure is releasing people from jail into a community without access to employment, housing or resources.

When we build new jails that perpetuate the same failed culture that inflicts further harm, when we fail to consider proven alternatives to incarceration that keep people connected to jobs, families, health care and other supports, and when we allow people with serious mental health conditions to languish in jails because we haven’t funded treatment facilities, we are funding failure.

Success, on the other hand, is improving public safety in a way that is both just and financially rigorous. 

Change is slow, but it’s coming. 

Los Angeles County, where Supervisor Sheila Kuehl serves, is committed to alternatives to incarceration and closing, not replacing jails. In the last five years, L.A. County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry has safely released more than 7,000 people from custody into community-based programs. 

In Alameda County, Supervisor Keith Carson, along with his colleagues, has dedicated more than $100 million over the course of the past five years to community-based services for individuals returning from incarceration and actively on probation, understanding that investing in employment, housing, mental health and peer support, individuals are less likely to re-offend. 

Our colleagues in other counties across the state are similarly supporting success. 

In Sacramento County, supervisors voted in March 2021 to oppose a proposed jail expansion in favor of alternatives. Supervisors in San Francisco County voted to close one of their jails and are working to safely reduce their jail population. In San Diego, supervisors are exploring a data-driven approach to reduce jail populations and alternatives to incarceration. 

These actions highlight a statewide trend to reduce the number of people held unnecessarily in our jails and explore alternatives that would increase public safety. 

Santa Clara County has already invested in alternatives to incarceration, including passage of a $900 million housing bond, largely for permanent, supportive housing, implementing universal basic income pilots and is working to expand access to childcare. 

Santa Clara County has also reduced its jail population steadily over the past decade and dramatically so during the pandemic, without any corresponding decrease to public safety. Nearly 90% of the individuals in the county’s jails are being held pretrial, many because they are simply too poor to post bail, and there is cause to believe that nearly half of the remaining population could be released with little risk to public safety. 

For those who are struggling with serious mental illnesses, judges have already determined that many of them should be directed to treatment facilities or programs, but there are scant available slots. 

On Jan. 25, Santa Clara County Supervisors will have to decide whether to build a new “maximum security” jail with 500 mental health beds. We hope they will refuse this recommendation and continue to focus on expanding safe alternatives to incarceration while building out mental health and substance use treatment facilities.

Jail population reduction and alternatives to incarceration such as housing, addiction recovery programs, psychiatric facilities, mental health rehabilitation centers, job training and placement, and family supports are mechanisms to maintain public safety, support communities and address public health concerns while eliminating the harm many people may experience in our county jails.

Across California, boards of supervisors are finding solutions that keep communities safer. They are saying no to funding the tired systems that have failed us for generations. We hope Santa Clara County will join other counties that are funding success.

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