Jail Expansion Would Be Step in Wrong Direction

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The United States accounts for roughly 5 percent of the world’s total population, but 25 percent of its total prisoners. This is the net effect of policies that bestow the U.S. with the dubious honor of having the world’s highest rate of incarceration.

The expansive prison-industrial complex in the U.S. sits at the focal point of several deeply troubling issues, from institutionally embedded racism in our legal system to perverse financial incentives and poorly thought out social policies.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 21.6 percent of inmates were in jail for violent crimes in 2002. All prisoners, violent or not, are not allowed to vote for the duration of their incarceration and parole, and job opportunities for ex-inmates become significantly limited after their release.

Regretfully, a recent push by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department to expand the Rountree Detention Facility in Watsonville could bring Santa Cruz one step closer to following the same approach toward incarceration that led to such terrible outcomes in the rest the country.

In January the California Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) recommended that our Sheriff’s Department receive a $24.6 million grant for the Rountree expansion after they submitted a proposal in late October 2013. The decision now falls to the County Board of Supervisors as to whether or not they will accept the grant and go ahead with the proposed expansion.

The grant would cover a brick-and-mortar expansion to the existing facility, freeing up space for 64 new beds. The Sheriff’s Department also said some of the money would go toward increasing the amount of so-called “programming” — educational and vocational courses, rehabilitation services, counseling, etc. — available to inmates. Thus far, however, the Sheriff’s Department has not said how exactly the money would be distributed.

City on a Hill Press stands behind Sin Barras, a local-prison reform organization, which has opposed funding for this expansion since its inception and orchestrated a protest downtown on Jan. 16, the same day the BSCC released its recommendation. Sin Barras joins Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) in opposing the use of state funds to expand jails. With almost $2 billion in bonds and state funds slated to go toward jail and prison expansion in the near future, residents of California should speak out and pressure the County Board of Supervisors to deny this grant.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws for minimal amounts of illicit drugs, three-strikes laws punishing people with life sentences and “zero-tolerance” policies criminalizing minor infractions at schools all contribute to a school-to-prison pipeline and the flooding of jails with nonviolent offenders.

Instead of constructing additional space for incarceration and beefing up funding for social support programs operated inside of jails and prisons, we should spend our money on programs that would help keep people from being incarcerated in the first place. We agree wholeheartedly with Sin Barras that “not only are community-based alternatives more effective, they are less costly.”

Furthermore, an expansion to the Rountree facility would only amount to a Band-Aid covering the real problem causing overcrowding in jails across the state: an overreliance on incarceration to address issues that are ultimately social and economic in nature. No amount of extra beds will ever fix the broken policies that send so many to jail. We need to rethink our approach to incarceration — not double down on it.

In the Jan. 16 protest supported by Sin Barras, activists displayed signs calling for “education — not incarceration” and “youth programs, not a school-to-prison pipeline.” These messages should not resonate solely with those whose life (or loved one’s life) has been derailed by our incarceration epidemic. Given that the prison-industrial complex is the root of a range of issues, these messages should resonate with the community.

We agree with Sin Barras founder Courtney Hanson that “people’s access to social services shouldn’t have to happen only once they’re incarcerated.” Indeed, we believe greater funding for and availability of social programs like rehabilitation, counseling and education would greatly diminish the amount of people who ultimately end up incarcerated.

It would make more sense for our community to fund preventative programs like these before building more beds to fill with prisoners. We hope the Board of Supervisors keep that in mind as they consider investing $24.6 million into an expansion that only reinforces a mindset with a dismal track record.

  • Justin Brooks

    You are 100% correct. We keep making the same mistake over and over again by spending money on building prisons instead of reforming our laws and using alternative sentencing that has a greater possibility of decreasing recidivism.