Assembly Committee Hears Ideas on Reducing Prison and Jail Populations

Assembly Committee Hears Ideas on Reducing Prison and Jail Populations


SAN FRANCISCO — A state Assembly committee gathered ideas from Bay Area law enforcement and community representatives at a hearing in San Francisco Wednesday on how to help people avoid going to prison and avoid going back.

The purpose of the Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment session was to obtain information that could shape legislation aimed at reducing prison and jail overcrowding and increasing rehabilitation, according to committee co-chair Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco.

“I think we have a long way to go. When you have a (statewide) recidivism rate of 70 to 30, we know there’s a lot more to do,” Ammiano said after the hearing at the State Building.

The San Francisco hearing was one of a series the committee is holding around California on various prison issues.

Programs described by local experts included diversion projects, alternative community courts, gang ceasefire efforts, and services for released prisoners making the transition back to their communities.

Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon told the committee that such programs make sense not only morally but economically as well.

“These things come with tremendous savings,” said Gascon, who said the average cost of keeping a person incarcerated for a year is $50,000.

Magnus described Operation Ceasefire, a collaboration among the city of Richmond and church and community groups to encourage gang members to give up violence.

Known gang members are summoned to a “call in,” attended by community representatives, including grandmothers, and law enforcement officials, Magnus said.

“The message from both is the same: ‘The shooting must stop,'” he said.

The gang members are told they have a choice of making use of services to help them get education and jobs or risking arrest and prosecution if they commit crimes, the police chief said.

Magnus said, “It’s not perfect, but despite the challenges, I believe the ceasefire is a very important investment” because it has resulted in about 20 percent of those who attend the call-ins deciding to give up violence.

“From our standpoint, if we can get two out of 10 individuals to make that choice to stop the shooting, it means we have less homicide,” he said.

Other programs in Richmond include responding to community concerns about park safety and providing services to youth outside of the court system to reduce truancy, he said.

“A strong relationship with the community has helped to drive down the homicide rate,” said Magnus, who said the number has fallen from 65 when he took office in 2006 to 16 thus far this year.

Gascon described San Francisco’s drug diversion program, in which first-time drug offenders can have charges dismissed if they complete treatment, and the Neighborhood Court system.

People who choose to participate in Neighborhood Courts can have non-violent misdemeanors and infractions handled by trained community “adjudicators,” who issue directives for restitution or other resolutions, rather than by judges in the regular court system.

“We run those programs for a fraction of the cost” of prosecuting people in the regular court system, Gascon said.

“What we’re doing can be done by any other county,” whether large or small, he told the committee.

LaVern Vaughn said the Safe Return Project, begun by formerly incarcerated people in Richmond four years ago, provides advocacy and services to people released from prison.

“People get out of jail with a paper bag (of their belongings) and don’t know what to do next. It’s so disheartening to see that,” Vaughn testified.

“The first 72 hours can determine whether they’re going back or not,” said Vaughn, who said released inmates need transitional housing, access to health care, and assistance in finding jobs.

“Given the right opportunity and investing in people instead of prison, we can do some really powerful things,” she told the committee.

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