Thank you so much to Decarcerate Sacramento for creating the toolkit for public participation (linked here) in this meeting that provided a large amount of the background information for this article.
On September 14th the Sac County BOS met and heard the following item (meeting page linked here): Mays Consent Decree Workshop: Expert Reports, Criminal Justice Issues And Reforms
*The County has until 12/15/22 to create a plan for meeting the consent decree (including a plan for jail population reduction)
Sac County Main Jail pictured below
The purpose of this item was to: “Receive the Public Safety and Justice Agency presentation regarding the status of the Mays Consent Decree, expert reports, criminal justice issues and reform efforts.” (pulled from agenda doc linked here) - meaning that the item was just set as a means of receiving reports from "experts" that claimed to support the need for the construction of a new jail. No decision was made at this meeting; this post is meant to review the misinformation presented to the Board from these reports.
What is the County trying to do?
Basically the County is bringing back their plan to expand the jail (to read about the previously blocked jail expansion click here). But this isn’t just about the jail expansion plan, it’s also about how decisions are being made in county government. Once again, the public has been lied to & the county is breaking promises made on March 10th, 2021 (when the expansion was denied) to explore solutions other than jail expansion.
What happened at the meeting?
Well, some truly awesome activists, advocates, and community members showed up to tell the County unequivocally that we do NOT want or need a jail expansion, and what we DO need is investment in alternatives to incarceration and to release people from jail. There is absolutely no justifiable reason to continue to incarcerate people at the rates that we do, let alone to add even more beds to the county jail carceral complex.
For the government’s part, there was a presentation from the Public Safety and Justice Agency (PSJA), essentially claiming that the “evidence” presented proves the need for a jail expansion. It’s pretty transparently clear that there isn’t any valid need for an expansion, as we will go on to explain in this article.
An analysis of the reports presented
The reports discussed were:
An important note:
The lawyers representing the class-action Mays lawsuit stated in a letter to the Board that “while remediation of physical plant deficiencies is essential, the Mays Consent Decree does not require the County to build additional jail beds or engage in any particular form of construction. It requires the County to meet minimum conditions for the people it chooses to incarcerate. The County is free to determine the manner in which to comply with those legal obligations. The court-appointed neutral experts and class counsel have repeatedly called for jail population reduction, including in reports and letters regarding unacceptable conditions of confinement. Significant and sensible reduction of the jail population is a critical step toward compliance with the Consent Decree and resolution of the Mays litigation.
Mays Class Counsel has said:
At the core of this crisis is the oversized jail population, which the County has failed to manage in a humane or lawful manner
It’s crucial to keep this in mind when reviewing all the claims stated in the following reports.
Up first: the Nacht and Lewis report
The Nacht and Lewis “an architecture firm with extensive experience with jails” (according the agenda doc) report basically said that to come close to complying to Mays, 1,000 inmates would need to be diverted from the Main Jail, and that even then there would still be areas of noncompliance because of ADA and HIPAA requirements.
According to their own report, N&L found their “answer”: “after completing the study, the answer is: ‘Even reducing the population very substantially, the Main Jail cannot achieve meaningful compliance with the consent decree.’
Our answer: We cannot trust the opinion of the architecture firm that would profit from this project because it did not explore how the jail could be retrofitted if the population was reduced. The determination that diverting inmates would not bring the Main Jail into compliance with Mays does not mean the county has to build a new facility!
Of course Nacht & Lewis are going to recommend the construction of an addition to the jail to meet compliance - they’re set to profit off of this project.
Nacht & Lewis is recommending that we rely on carceral systems as behavioral health care and social service providers:
the inversion of the current criminal justice system from one that prioritizes incapacitation and punishment to one that recognizes the clinical and criminogenic need, works to meet those unmet needs, and upholds core pillars of treatment- centric design for restorative justice
...yes, the Sac County jail system, famous for restorative justice...
Next up: the O’Connell report - the County retained “Mr. O’Connell, a criminal justice data analytics expert who has partnered with the County on the Data-Driven Recovery Project” (according to the agenda doc), to see how many inmates could be “reasonably” (whatever that means) diverted from the jails through alternatives to incarceration.
According to the O’Connell report: 40% of people entering the jail are there for arrests related to breaking rules (not laws), instead of allegedly committing new crimes (60%). We need to be asking: Why is incarceration used as a tool by Probation for minor rule violations? The county could order the Probation department to stop this ineffective practice.
O’Connell’s assessment of the total estimate of approximately 600 people that could be diverted from the jail in relation to reducing jail bookings, reducing length of stay, and reducing returns to custody seem to be based on “risk assessments” used by law enforcement- the validity of which is questioned by many scholars and experts in the field. We need to be asking: Who is determining “risk” and what tools are being used to determine “risk” to public safety?
Mr. O’Connell’s report states that “Sacramento’s commitment to reducing the number of people with behavioral health needs in jails signals the positive direction the county is taking to balance the needs of public safety with implementing effective alternatives to incarceration.” But Since March of 2021, some county staff have actually worked to worsen the problems in the jails to further justify their desire to build a new jail building. County Counsel has continued to cut off alternatives to incarceration for people with severe mental health needs like the County’s Mental Health Treatment Center, which increased the jail population with severe MH needs and allows them to further justify the need for the new jail building for “mental health treatment”.
Mr. O’Connell ALSO recommended the county support social and community needs:
Addressing community needs involving housing, primary healthcare, mental health and crisis response, and substance use all can help reduce the jail population, but in a way that targets the general population of the county, not necessarily only those that are justice-involved
Finally: the Still “peer-reviewed” report
The two reports mentioned above were reviewed by Wendy Still who “is a long-time administrator in corrections and has worked extensively in correctional design. She also served as the Probation Chief for the City and County of San Francisco and for Alameda County. In that capacity she was responsible for jail diversion programming" (according to the agenda doc). According to Still the methodologies used in the previous two reports were “sound”, however, her experience is not relevant specifically to Sacramento County’s lawsuit and is slanted toward institutional bias. Basically she rubber-stamped the “validity” of the N&L and O’Connell reports.
First, this is NOT a “Peer Review”: This “review” is just a list of professional activities and “qualifications” of the individuals who performed the county’s two studies. Wendy Still does not address the specific Nacht and Lewis conflicts of interest that precipitated the requirement for her “peer review.”
The “validity” of any report is also reliant on removing conflicts of interest! Wendy Still’s logic that the N&L findings are valid based on the firm’s experience with building jails is flawed. Nacht and Lewis built the Main Jail, the conditions of which brought on the lawsuit and they themselves admit that the violations inherent to the building cannot be remedied. Their history and experience is that of creating violations, not remedying them.
The county continues to not have a plan on where to send people with severe mental health needs who need treatment outside of a jail setting
Sacramento county has shown that it is willing to invest hundreds of millions in long-term locked facilities (jails) but NOT long-term affordable housing
30% of people released from the jail are unhoused, meaning there are more than 10,000 releases per year where housing could be needed at release
Mays plaintiffs counsel has said that staffing issues in the jail are “endemic”- they will always be there! So building a new jail annex will not solve staffing shortages and therefore will not meet the consent decree.
County Executive staff claim that
In each report, the experts and counsel have found that one of the primary obstacles to compliance is the physical limitations of the Main Jail
This is extremely misleading because the County has agreed that jail population reduction would be the fastest, most effective remedy for physical building and staffing limitations.
This jail expansion, if approved, will be the single largest draw of county resources in our generation. What kind of future do we want to build for our youth? One that paves the way for their incarceration or one that invests in programs that keep people out of the legal system?