By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – The Sacramento Board of Supervisors heard more than it expected from the community here Tuesday about the planned spending of more than $100 million for jails expansion at the expense of big cuts to other social programs.
In fact, one of the biggest points made by speakers was that three-quarters of Sacramento County’s budget is used to “maintain” the criminal justice “system” – most going to the Sheriff’s Dept.
The county has near-immediate plans to spend something just short of $90 million to expand Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove, and another $21 million to rehab the downtown main jail.
Not so fast, said speaker after speaker after speaker Tuesday. Largely, they are upset about the diversion of tens of millions of dollars from social services to giant-sizing county jails.
“Funding the Sacramento County Jail and cutting social and human services is bad public policy. It makes no sense to cut services that keep people out of jail in order to expand the jail,” read a statement circulated by the opposition to the jail expenditures.
Others questioned the motivation of the board, suggesting it was “fear” that has led them to expanding the jail, and criticized the board because there was no “cost benefit analysis, racial impact study, community impact analysis.”
“I’m terrified of the current state of the community and direction you are taking us. There’s a rise in fascism and you’re an arm of that. Criminalization doesn’t work. It ruins lives, perpetuates the poverty cycle and wastes tax dollars…and for a fascist like (Sheriff Scott) Jones who has gone rogue,” said Mackenzie Wilson, adding “the jail should be staffed with mental health staff not sheriffs. Upgrades need input from the community.”
The county did cut a deal this past month or so with plaintiffs in a massive class action lawsuit after inhumane, brutal and deplorable conditions were revealed, including the lack of medical and health treatment. The board has justified the spending of $21.7 million to meet “basic needs” of the nearly 4,000 prisoners in the jail.
But community and social justice activists said an expansion of the jail is not the answer.
The jail need not be as large as it is, they charge, noting that 60 to 75 percent of those in jail are not even convicted – they are waiting, often for years, for trial and sentencing. They’re sitting behind bars because they can’t afford bail.
“I would rather see money go elsewhere (like) childcare, job training, afterschool programs….why do we need it. This is wrong. We need more jobs. I’m opposed to this plan. You don’t give mental health services in jail. If crime’s going down then why do we need addition to jail,” said Robert Copeland.
And, speakers said repeatedly about half of those in jail have been diagnosed with mental illness, and spend much of their time in solitary confinement – when they shouldn’t really be in jail in the first place. Overall, about half of the jail inmates are homeless.
“Criminalizing people described as a success? We pay for it while you condone it. The safest neighborhoods have most resources not the most police. You want to give him (Sheriff) more money…take money out of services and give to the jail. This makes zero sense,” said Kevin Boltz.
And Courtney Hansen said it was “defeatist” to believe that the “only way to use money is (for a) jail. I ask you is that what your legacy to be in 10 years?” She said the supervisors should ask the community for help, adding that the one night she spent in jail was “the worst experience of my life…hang out in front of the jail if you want to know (what it’s like)”
Another, not identified, activist said “We see a lot of this money going to a shitty purpose. All of you should be horrified at what you’ve heard. Everybody in jail is still presumed innocent and most are children. Even if you get out of jail, God knows what will happen. Back to same system that held you captive.“
“Your plan is misguided. No one gets well in jail. We need to strengthen community programs not cut them,” counseled Liz Blum.
Another speaker, a nurse, charged that “programs for poor people are nonexistent. Cutting monies is inhumane and irresponsible. If there are cuts they should be made from (supervisor) salaries not to pay for inhumane conditions in the jail.”
She was critical about spending more money for sheriff deputies, claiming that she’s seen, as a nurse, deputies “hit on nurses, and minimize prisoner complaints. If they do that in public only imagine what they do inside prison walls.”
Opponents of the jail expansions said that expanding the jail will not make residents safer, noting that San Francisco and Los Angles decided not to increase the size of their jails, and crime has declined.
“All over the country, county and state, systems have reduced their incarceration rates by 30, 40, and 50 percent and simultaneously reduced crime rates. Many people with mental illness, substance abuse disorders, and who are homeless in jail can be served better and safer in the community, especially with robust mental health and housing services,” they said.
As several speakers pointed out, low income housing helps lower crime, while people stuck in jail lose their jobs, access to health care and that increases recidivism, “recycling” in and out of jail.
“You’re getting ready to feed a real monster. Three-quarters of the county budget maintains the criminal justice system. How about we take the money and invest in food or housing? People are hungry…sorry, they gotta eat,” said Henry Ortiz.
Sacramento tenants union and homeless organizing committee member Les Light said he was “alarmed at this. We see homeless being criminalized and being funneled into criminal system, and this look like it will accelerate that process. We’re short of housing, rent is going up and (people) are being pushed out on the street. This impacts their mental health and the way it’s resolved is to criminalize them?”
And Nicki Jones, a street outreach worker, said the “Sheriffs and court system are racially biased. I have concerns about (spending more) for criminal based services. Let’s cancel the bid on the $89 million.”