San Francisco's jail population is a fraction of what it was even a decade ago. But putting more people in jail now will be difficult — even if that's what our leaders want, and that's what's politically popular.

Sometimes a non-answer is more illustrative than an answer. 

Last week, I asked the Sheriff’s Department for the year-to-date tally of lockdowns in the city’s jails. These are shutdowns triggered by unpredicted emergencies or, far more often, severe short-staffing.  

I was told that information wouldn’t be available for weeks, at the soonest. Why? “We are severely short-staffed.” 

So, that’s funny. But not ha-ha funny. And not funny for the people involved. 

In mid-June, lawyer Yolanda Huang traveled from Oakland to San Francisco County Jail No. 3, in San Bruno, to meet with her client. She was told “there were not enough staff to walk someone from the cell down to the visiting area. My understanding is that they’re short-staffed at the jail with some regularity.” And that’s so: A deputy in County Jail No. 3 texts that short-staffing-induced lockdowns are occurring “almost daily, if not every other day.” 

San Francisco’s jails have almost never been more thinly populated. And yet, the system is coming apart at the seams. So if the next District Attorney has strong ideas about tossing dope-dealers and property criminals into jail — well, that could be quite a predicament.  

Fetid conditions at the since-shuttered jail at 850 Bryant St. led to multiple inmate-initiated lawsuits.

By mid-July, San Francisco will have a new DA. Just who that person will be is not yet known, and the chatter flits from candidate to candidate as the days go by. But it’s hard to imagine that person, whoever it is, fully embracing the policies initiated by George Gascón and continued by Chesa Boudin that, in part, dropped San Francisco’s jail population to near-historic lows.

As of July 1, there were just 753 men and women locked up in San Francisco’s two remaining jails (counter-intuitively, only jails Nos. 2 and 3 are now open). San Francisco’s overall jail capacity is now shy of 1,200. To put that in context, the average daily inmate count regularly passed 2,000 in the 2010s. Yes, Covid-19 cratered the jail population and, in 2020, we belatedly shut down the feces-and-vermin-saturated jail facility at the Hall of Justice. But the jail population had been steadily dropping for a decade, and it has remained rather consistent for the past two years.         

And most San Franciscans would say that’s good, in concept. Following the recall of Boudin, however, it seems to be a politically safe position to advocate for consequences for runaway property crime or chaotic street conditions or fentanyl-dealing. And “consequences” invariably translates to “jail.” 

Mayor London Breed benefited in no small part by Boudin disproportionately absorbing people’s wrath regarding San Francisco’s crime and filth and chaos. So the DA she chooses is ostensibly going to have to do something about all that.

San Francisco hasn’t really had devoted narcotics prosecutors since Kamala Harris was DA, and hasn’t prosecuted drug cases nearly as forcefully since 2010, when a tech at the police crime lab was caught snorting the evidence. Also, as you’d expect, San Francisco juries are not the easiest when it comes to street-level drug-dealing, one of many reasons that aggressively prosecuting low-level dope-dealers has long been seen as a losing proposition. 

But, we’re told, in 2022 a wanna-be DA who proposes establishing devoted narcotics prosecutors is putting him or herself in a good position. This would seem to be a preferred cure to what Breed referred to as “the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”  

Elections, after all, have consequences. So will misbehaving in this city. And that seems like a plan — in concept. 

A June presentation from the Sheriff’s Department painted a stark picture on staffing

Mayor Breed, notably, gave the city’s underperforming police department a fat raise, with the aim of minting more cops and putting more officers on the street. Her choice of DA will, almost by default, be more enamored of carceral solutions than Boudin. With more cops and more traditional prosecutors, Step 3 would be more people likely going to jail.  

But, as Huang could tell you, the sheriffs are unable to properly staff the jails now, with near-historically low inmate populations. “I don’t know the solution if they have more prisoners,” she says. “This seems like a pretty obvious issue.” 

At the risk of distilling a complicated situation regarding criminal justice and incarceration into an overly simple matter of supply and demand, chronic short-staffing could, in part, be remedied by, you know, more hiring. And, to be fair, the budget for the current fiscal year does give the Sheriff’s Department a healthy bump. But, unlike the police department, which always gets more, the proposed outlay for next fiscal year would actually reduce the sheriffs’ budget. 

So, that doesn’t bode well. Nor does the fact that even the aspirational hiring numbers put forward by Sheriff Paul Miyamoto would hardly put a dent in his department’s shortage — and, in fact, all but certainly won’t even keep up with attrition. 

Even if the potential 75 new deputies are hired in future months, projections obtained by Mission Local reveal that more than 80 current deputies will have retired or quit. So the best-case hiring scenario doesn’t even keep the department’s head above water. But this gets worse, because the department is already under water; the Sheriff’s Department is, again, “severely short-staffed,” and is on pace to lose more workers than it hires for the third consecutive year. 

In a June presentation to the Board of Supervisors, Miyamoto noted that he’s down 176 sworn positions, and that a ludicrous 25 percent of work hours are done on overtime. This is, again, in an era with the lowest inmate counts in modern history.

On June 9, Miyamoto wrote to his department that they would be operating at below minimum staffing levels for “8-9 months.” Even this appears to be an optimistic assessment. So, with a new DA coming on board, and the police department granted more money in the hopes of beefing up operations, these next few months will be interesting, to say the least. 

Source: SFGov.org

Augmenting the city’s jail population could cause real problems for both inmates and the people who guard them. But it may be more than a bit presumptuous to assume that the powers-that-be give a damn. 

But they do give a damn about the law. Or at least they’ve got to follow it. And that, too, stands in the way of a return to cuff ‘em and stuff ‘em policing and prosecutions. 

In 2021, the California Supreme Court released a decision on in re: Humphrey. In a nutshell, this ruling found that holding an alleged criminal indefinitely in pretrial custody only because he or she couldn’t pony up bail was a violation of due process and equal protection. That came on the heels of the Buffin v. City and County of San Francisco case, which found fixed bail rates to be unconstitutional. 

Judges must now consider a defendant’s ability to pay when setting bail. And prosecutors are now far more greatly constrained in their attempts to indefinitely lock up accused criminals awaiting trail. The harshest critics of outgoing DA Boudin never seemed to grasp this — or perhaps they grasped it full well and just didn’t care. It remains to be seen if legal realities ignored by those chastising Boudin will, in the not-too-distant future, be deployed as excuses to buttress his successor. 

We asked the Sheriff’s Department what it would do if it were forced to mind a flood of new prisoners. It answered: “There is indeed a serious staffing issue in the Sheriff’s Office and Command has taken measures to mitigate the problems created by this shortfall. We continue to rely on the cooperation of City and County leadership as we work through this challenge.  But the procedures and the materials are already in place to ramp up operations should there be a major influx.”

Yes, sometimes a non-answer is more illustrative than an answer. But, sometimes not. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. This doesn’t add up to me. The sheriff is down 176 deputies and they can’t handle the 775 persons in custody now. This 775 is a thin population compared to several years ago. The courts have barely been running so deputies don’t need to be at the courthouse. Less prisoners should mean less deputies needed so down 176 deputies to guard the current population would make sense if you have half or one third the prisoners that use to be normal population. How many deputies would be considered a full staff? Would the deputies and their unions start screaming if there were more hires since the overtime pay is damn good and don’t want to lose that.

    1. The short staffing has now increased over – 180 deputy sheriffs now. In the custody division alone to operate at normal levels the SFSO needs 430 deputies. Currently in the custody division alone it is short staffed by -130 deputies. Your statement less prisoners would relate to less deputies, yes you are correct as I stated above to operate at the current level of prisoner population custody division needs 430 deputies. To understand why that number is needed is this, the jails are a 24/7 operation. Multiple shifts are required, days, swings, mids also coverage is needed for days off, coverage is needed for meal breaks. Now that’s the bare minimum. In SF the politicians and voters provide additional rehabilitation classes for prisoners ie educational schools and rehabilitation classes, deputies need to provide coverage of those areas as well. In addition prisoners get visitors from family, friends, and attorneys movement and transportation is required to conduct those. Prisoners also are required to get recreation and access to specific programs such as the law library and medical services. All of this has to be converted for safety and security of everyone present. Currently some of this is being limited and denied due to the Sheriffs Office understaffing. San Franciscans are caring people and want to help the prisoners get back on their feet to lead a productive life, but unfortunately a lot of what the San Franciscans want is not happen in the jails due to the Sheriffs Office understaffing. The San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs Association want staffing increased to safe levels. We have repeatedly notified Sheriff Miyamoto and Mayor London Breed. So far they have not been responsive and have continued to reduce staffing levels to even more dangerous levels. As for overtime, don’t worry about us reducing overtime, we have the ability to help business and work overtime at city events. We are here to help.

    2. The OT is unlimited. There is so much demand for SF Deputies that we can’t even staff special events. More Deputies would actually allow SF Deps to work 49ers games and the 10A program thus keeping the community safer.

  2. The problem the Sheriff is not hiring Deputy Sheriffs, he is not requesting the appropriate number of new ftes for academy funding. It’s a self inflicted injury by the sheriffs office for not properly requesting the correct funding nor advocating for it. The Mayor has done nothing about it while Prisoners went from being out of their cells 9 hours a day down to 45 minutes a day.  Why isn’t Mayor Breed forcing the Sheriff to hire more deputy sheriffs? Is this a form of defunding? If it is it’s wrong!

  3. Great column, and it would be very helpful to better understand why the staffing shortage is so bad. My guess is the short answer people give is “the pandemic,” but that doesn’t tell us as much as we think it does. What are the demographics of people who work in the Sheriff’s department (age, geo, etc.)? Are the same profiles of people coming in as those who are retiring, or does this work appeal to a different set of people than it used to? What are the motivations of people working there? Of those leaving? How much attrition is there in the hiring process? Why? There’s so much to learn here.

  4. The majority of the general public is unaware of how the bail and bond process works, so chances are they were unaware of the changes. They are also unaware of how a ‘no cash bail’ policy works in real time. They are definitely unaware of what it’s like to be locked up.

    Many voters seem to be mainly concerned with quality of life issues and embody a “what has the DA done for me lately’ mentality. It is rare to hear concern for those who are going through the system. They are criminals, after all. Boudin does have that concern, and many despise him for it.

    I wonder how a Stefani led drug prosecution unit would play out? How many lives will she fuck up in order to tout a dozen fentanyl dealer arrests? Will ‘crumbs’ become the unit’s mainstay?

    1. Being prosecuted multiple times for low-level drug offenses during the 2000s probably saved my life by routinely arresting me, incarcerating me, and sending me to multiple rehabs until I finally stayed clean. I would have probably died from a Fentanyl overdose in the 2010s going the route I was going. We are losing a Vietnam War (58,000 deaths in ten years) in overdose deaths a year in the US. That should be our focus. How many people are dying each year because of those “little crumbs”? How many people are dying each year because our solution in SF is to “humanely” let them do drugs until they have totally lost their faculties and lie in there own fluids on the sidewalk?

  5. What Joe left out is the way the Sheriff deals with these staff shortages is to keep prisoners in lock-down, or solitary confinement. Prisoners are locked up for 24 or more hours in a row, in a 6 by 8 closet. And we want to know why folks in jail don’t become better human beings after release. Ask what happened to — Troy McAlister – who the sheriff had in his custody for 5 years – at an annual cost of over $75,000 a year ($375,000 is what tax payers spent). But the Sheriff has filled all the Sergeant positions and assigned a sergeant to assist each administrator in the Sheriff’s staff. That’s a good use of public funding.

    1. Ms. Huang – Being put on lockdown due to staffing shortages is horrible – being held in a jail for five years without being transfered to a prison is an insanity I cant imagine; plus an egregious violation of the Eighth Amendment. Unreal.

      Thank you for your good work.

  6. Joe, you have condensed the reality of the SFDA’s office in a short and concise essay that can make this tired and disappointed soul flutter just a bit.

    Re:Humphry especially. That was one I waited a long time for someone to talk about.

    Though, perhaps for the more “Cuff ’em and stuff ’em” style of guest, to answer the question further of if we do decide to overcrowd our jails and prisons.

    I am sure the California Surpreme Court would be overjoyed to consider the implications of Brown v Plata, on if we go far enough past operating capacity, to apply it to county jails.

    Perhaps they will shove something up San Francisco’s behind.

    But maybe I am spoiling too much.

  7. When criminals are arrested, as they should be, and released on bail pending trial if they are not a flight risk or danger to society, as they should be, and then convicted at trial or with a plea, they are generally sent to state prison, not county jail. (Yes, I know, there are exceptions). So this article makes quite a leap. SF should, of course, take measures to remedy any staffing shortages at the jails. But you don’t need to – or even want to – “cuff ‘em and stuff ‘em” into county jails to properly arrest and prosecute criminals. Chesa failed at the latter part of that, and that can now be fixed. The police need to now step up and arrest criminals. Lack of county jail space (and it’s not clear that is even an issue) is not a hindrance to proper arrest and prosecution policies.

    1. “I am going to ignore judicial process and the slow as fuck process of the San Francisco Superior Court. Then, astoundingly not realize the entire point of the article that points out that many of these offenders are low level offenders with other facts that make it not as easy as I would dream.”

      They are likely not going to prison, genius.

  8. Crime doesn’t take a vacation and the all show no solution policy of Mayor London Breed is lets not talk about staff shortages especially at the operation level. Every city department has severe staffing shortages and the solution is,: hiring will maybe happen sometime after Breed gets re-elected

    1. The City and County has more than 37,000 employees, up by thousands from a few years back. How come there are widespread staffing shortages? Something doesn’t add up here.

  9. Joe continues to be one of the most influential and well written journalists of out times. Good job Joe!

  10. Recallers, you have prevailed in a free and fair recall election where you voted against Chesa Boudin. What did you vote for that is possible to achieve with the new appointed DA? Mayor Breed has said many of Boudin’s reform policies will remain in place. The new DA will have no more power to arrest more folks than the old DA and no more power to affect drug overdoses or homelessness. As Joe points out, even if there were an appetite to lock more folks up, capacity is very much limited. Perhaps, you could go work for the Sheriff and do something helpful to your cause? I sincerely want to know what you all think you will have gained before or after any of the 2 (or is it 3?) DA elections we will all now have over the next year and a half?

    1. Well said. The waste of tax-payer money and resources on a “recall” election when he was up for re-election in less than a year makes no sense to me. He was just a scape goat for another year of non problem-solving by SF’s leaders and constituents for all the ailments we somehow still can’t solve.

    2. Good comment in its insight. Now that London Breed has given the cops an increased budget, let’s see if it translates to more police on the street actually making arrests. The cops and the POA sat on their butts, doing nothing, because they hated Chesa Boudin. Let’s see where the city is in six months with some new “tough on crime” hard ass right-wing DA. Chesa was unfairly blamed for problems beyond his control. The black hole filled with rabid howling dogs that is the readers comments section in the Chronicle outdid themselves with the recall, blaming Chesa for everything that was wrong in the City. Let’s hear them howl when nothing improves and will, in fact, get worse.

      1. “Let’s see where the city is in six months”

        Let’s see who’s on the ballot and where the City is on election day in November.

    3. @The Kid – What would be funny is if Stefani was appointed and then lost in an election. It has to be something weighing on her mind. Breed wasn’t exactly jumping to be appointed mayor when Lee passed away. And Loftus was unable to cash in on her appointment.

    4. Well Maybe the new DA will not change rape charges into assault charges and let them out. He did this regularly and then bragged he had charged more rapists than anyone else, he neglected to say he dropped the moret charges of rape than anyone else too. The same individuals did the same crime and the process repeated. Low level criminals do not stay in jail they are put on ankle monitor and go forth to offend again. no consequences, no reason to stop so they don’t.
      I have seen it day in day out for 15yrs, staff are attacked regularly and nothing happens to the criminal. Why is staffing so low? Cops are vilified and can be charges for doing their job. A deputy and his wife were fallowed and shot at because did his job. The pay may be good but who wants to be attacked for the job you do by the media and the public you are defending.