Guest Commentary: Does Sacramento Really Need a Bigger Jail? 

by Mark Dempsey

SACRAMENTO, CA – By my count, a proposal to expand the downtown County jail is on the Sacramento Board of Supervisors agenda for the third time on December 7, 2022, at 2 PM. If you’re unfamiliar with what motivates the County, it lost a lawsuit, convicting it of mistreating prisoners. 

The advisory commission County Supervisors formed to provide solutions did not recommend expanding the jail, but so far it’s what the Supervisors are considering…for the third time. I’m betting some contractor is anticipating a big payday for the roughly $89 million job.

At that December 7 meeting the Supervisors will vote on their plan to address the consent decree in the lawsuit. They need two things: 1. reduce the jail population, and 2. to “remedy physical plant deficiencies.” 

The county can choose to reduce the jail population through investments in prevention and scaling up existing diversion programs. They can also renovate the current downtown jail for the plant deficiencies instead of building a 3-story “annex.” Guess which one is cheaper.

All of this occurs in the context of one of the biggest incarceration binges in world history. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of the prisoners—five times the world average per-capita rate, and seven times the age-demographic-identical Canadians’ rate. But Canadian and U.S. crime are about the same (per capita), even though Canadians incarcerate far fewer people. Cages do not prevent crime.

Putting people in cages has been extraordinarily expensive, too. Between 1982 and 2017, the U.S. population increased by 42 percent. Spending on policing increased by 187 percent. Do police receive such generous funding because people have an infinite appetite for (i.e. addiction to) safety, even if that safety is an illusion?

Police don’t solve, much less prevent, the majority of crimes, either—solving only about 15 percent of reported crimes in California, according to the FBI. On the other hand, there’s good evidence social safety nets do prevent crime. Canadians have single-payer health care, for one thing. That means they don’t experience the half-million medical bankruptcies and 40,000 estimated deaths caused by the lack of medical care we have in the U.S. every year.

Caging people doesn’t solve mental health issues like addiction, either. As an addiction cure, it’s much less effective than medical treatment (rehab) and about seven times more expensive. Oh yes, and 65 percent of the prison population has a substance use disorder.

The Federal Reserve reports that 40 percent of Americans can’t handle a $400 emergency without selling something or borrowing. Desperate populations make for desperate situations and make policing far more difficult. I have friends on the police force who I do not want unnecessarily endangered, but that’s what all this reliance on more policing and incarceration does—it unnecessarily endangers them, producing only the illusion of safety.

Policing and criminalization don’t prevent or solve crimes. It doesn’t cure addicts. It does line the pockets of contractors who build cages, and who could be building something we really need—like affordable housing. But it doesn’t address the problem, and (bonus!) it’s very expensive.

The persecution of the poor is bipartisan, too. Clinton signed Newt Gingrich’s “end of welfare as we know it.” That meant AFDC became TANF, and while 76 percent of those needing public assistance got it under AFDC, only 26 percent of such candidates qualified for TANF. It’s hardly credible that half of the welfare recipients were frauds, but that incredible belief is what continues to excuse the attacks on poor people.

And yes, it’s class warfare. As billionaire stock picker Warren Buffett says: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” I say let’s stop believing our addiction to safety and do something that will actually work. What do you say?


Also worth a look, the Davis Vanguard weighs in about the many abuses and misuses of our “justice” system. Excerpt:  “…right now mental health and substance use disorder underlie a huge percentage of crimes. Forty-three percent of the prison population is diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Former SF DA Chesa Boudin used to point out that the San Francisco Jail was the largest mental health provider in their city/county.

“…Moreover, 65 percent of the prison population has a substance use disorder….the vast majority of the people in prison are suffering from mental health disorders, substance use disorders and/or were victims of physical or sexual abuse.

“Instead of addressing those problems, we throw people in cages.

“A lot of prison reformers have visited facilities in Germany and Norway and are stunned by the difference, even for serious offenses.

“For one thing… ‘American correction officers are trained for a few weeks, with a heavy emphasis on how to [abusively] keep control. In Germany, aspiring prison officers study for two intensive years, including college-level courses in psychology, ethics, and communications skills.

“Here’s the amazing part—it works a lot better.”

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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