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.
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.
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.
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.