New Jail Concerns: Budget Over Safety?

A state rule bars the legislature from considering new laws that add to the prison population. Does this rule put the Redwood City community at risk?

As construction crews begin to build in Redwood City across from the Police Department, some residents are concerned that San Mateo County is prioritizing money over public safety. 

In 2007, with California prisons facing an overcrowding crisis, the Senate Public Safety Committee began a policy known as “Receivership/Overcrowding Crisis Aggravation,” known as ROCA.

ROCA is an informal policy that prevents the committee from considering any legislation that would increase the prison population.

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe says ROCA can hinder efforts to address important criminal issues.

“Money rather than justice is driving things,” said Wagstaffe.

Wagstaffe explains that since 2007, only high-profile cases brought to the attention of the media can lead to an exception to that rule.

One such example is Chelsea’s Law, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2010 in response to the case of Chelsea King, a teenager killed by a sex offender. The law stated that anyone convicted of certain against children would receive life in prison without parole. Though the law increased the prison population, an exception was made by way of an offset of releasing other prisoners.

Wagstaffe expressed concern that in other less sensational cases, such as the issue of elder abuse, ROCA prevents effective action from being done to curb the problem. In the 1990s before the prison overcrowding situation, Wagstaffe says, bills addressing elder abuse would likely have easily passed.

Oakland Senator Loni Hancock, the current Chair of the Public Safety Committee, has continued the policy set by her predecessors, according to her Chief of Staff Hans Hermann.

Hermann insists that though the situation is unfortunate, crime rates have dropped since 2007, casting doubt upon the idea that safety is at risk from limiting the inmate population.

Carlos Alcala, spokesperson for San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, expressed concern over the value of prison in reducing crime.

“We have found over the years that adding to the prison population has not made society safer.”

Alcala added that the ban on increasing the prison population may have the potential benefit, in the eyes of Assemblyman Ammiano, of encouraging greater emphasis on rehabilitation and other more effective punishments.

Do you think it will? 


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Lisa Carlos August 13, 2012 at 01:57 PM
Dear Editor - To answer your question, further statistics are needed to assess the nature and magnitude of the problem specifically as it relates to the SM county and our new jail. How many people cycling in and out of our county jail need and have access to mental health, substance abuse, and other social services to stay clean, sober and be contributing members of society? How many are violent or sex offending criminals that will automatically be put into state penitentiaries, not our county jail? How much money is the new county jail going to cost to build and operate annually and how much would those same millions of dollars fund in preventative and rehabilitative services to our inmate population? If public safety is a concern, then we should be looking very closely at the county budget going into building and operating an over-size, additional county jail just when we are also cutting millions from county social service and health budgets and eliminating the number of county hospital beds serving the mentally ill, indigent, and single heads of households with dependent children. Common sense and data says that crime rates do not decline by putting more people in jail. Instead, the public is the safest when you address the fundamental social, health and welfare issues that contribute to crime being committed in the first place.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive August 13, 2012 at 03:49 PM
The argument for building a new jail in San Mateo County is not about increasing capacity as much as it is about replacing a decrepit current facility. But addressing the issue of overcrowding can be simply dealt with by repealing mandatory sentences for non-violent offenses. 30 percent of the current prison population are there for those reasons. Put them into work furlough, house arrest, etc. and you solve much of the problem.
Rex August 13, 2012 at 05:02 PM
You're exactly right. Let's try to solve as much of the problem as possible at the roots.
Michael Craig August 13, 2012 at 05:52 PM
Just wondering how and why a jail was approved so close(about 50 yards away) to Malibu Grand Prix which is a Family Entertainment Center with kids and families coming to play Mini-Golf, Arcades, etc? I am not against prisons per se but thought there was some kind of requirement that they be a certain distance away from schools, amusement parks, children etc?
Lou Covey, The Local Motive August 13, 2012 at 06:26 PM
The women's jail is already there. That's what needs replacing


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