San Diego Central Jail by Tristan Loper
San Diego Central Jail seen here back in 2016. / Photo by Tristan Loper

If we were as efficient at constructing homes and providing social services as we are at building jails, there would be a lot fewer unhoused people on our streets.

Due to COVID-19, San Diego County’s jail system has been quietly experiencing a seismic shift — one that can help us understand how to better protect our communities and get to the root causes of homelessness, mental and behavioral crises, substance abuse, and other struggles that too often land people behind bars.

To ensure people are not crowded together during the pandemic, law enforcement has been less likely to book individuals into jail who are charged with low-level crimes. These minor offenses include encroachment, loitering, illegal lodging and other activities associated with being homeless.

As a result, San Diego County’s jail population shrunk by a whopping 25 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, from an average daily number of 5,630 to 4,197, according to the San Diego District Attorney’s office. The jail population fell even lower in the first half of 2021 to about 3,800 people in custody.

This trend confirms how much we have been using jails as a first line response to issues like homelessness, poverty, drug use and mental health crises.

This isn’t a surprise. We already know that people suffering from mental illnesses or substance use problems are often, by default, directed to either emergency rooms or jailed — neither of which is an appropriate setting for long-term recovery.

Crisis stabilization centers, permanent supportive housing, addiction recovery programs, psychiatric facilities, mental health rehabilitation centers, 24-hour care for individuals who need a high level of support, and other alternatives to incarceration would all be more effective at improving long-term outcomes than imprisoning someone who is not a public safety risk.

Appropriate and effective community treatment isn’t just morally right, it’s fiscally responsible. It costs a whole lot more to put someone in jail compared to putting them in a permanent supportive housing unit. California taxpayers spend on average $81,000 a year to incarcerate someone with mental health needs, which can be more than twice as expensive as alternatives like housing or outpatient sobering programs.

On Oct.19, the County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to start changing this dynamic at the most fundamental level by approving Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer’s data-driven public safety plan.

The proposal  — developed with input from community groups, justice system reform experts, public safety experts, racial justice advocates, and healthcare and other service providers — will direct the County to examine this dynamic of the smaller jail population over the last year and a half and identify service gaps that became apparent when people experiencing homelessness, mental health, substance use and other issues were no longer booked into jail.

The County will work with experts throughout the next year to conduct an empirical analysis of jail, law enforcement and other public safety data from 2018 to present to ensure our next steps are based on evidence.

The analysis will identify the primary drivers of reduced incarceration rates during the pandemic; review the most common charges for people booked into jail before and during the pandemic; look at whether populations not booked during the pandemic committed new crimes compared to prior years; determine the public safety effects of not booking people into jail for low-level offenses and more.

Additionally, this study will also identify holes in current treatments, facilities, and programs that need to be filled to better serve the community as an alternative to incarceration. It will also cost-out the investments we should be making in these alternatives.

Based on the data and analysis, the Board of Supervisors will then be presented with policy recommendations to safely keep jail populations at reduced levels by investing in alternatives to incarceration for people who do not pose a public safety threat. This will help the county determine where to invest resources in the future to support the data-driven recommendations, such as building more behavioral health facilities instead of expanding jails.

Throughout this process, we will focus on individuals who disproportionately experience substance use, mental health, poverty and homelessness challenges at a greater rate, such as youth or young adults, the community, disabled individuals and communities of color, including Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islander.

Putting people who are sick, poor, or without a home in jail is extremely expensive while doing nothing to address the root causes of these problems. Together we can make sure we are investing tax dollars in a way that is not only aligned with our values, but aligned with what the data says is the most effective way to tackle the complex challenges facing individuals in our community.

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