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San Francisco Called a Model for Ending Mass Incarceration

December 1, 2015 10:34:37 am

Photo by Tommaso via Flickr

San Francisco has rapidly reduced its jail and prison populations with a series of “best practices” innovations that have built on California’s well-publicized legislative reforms enacted since 2009, according to a research study released today.

The study adds its success could serve as a model for the rest of the United States.

In the study, entitled “Eliminating Mass Incarceration: How San Francisco Did It,” James Austin of the JFA Institute reports that the combined jail and prison rate of incarceration in San Francisco City and County in 2014 (the latest year for which data are available) was 279 per 100,000­--less than one-half the rate for California, and less than one-third the national rate.

At the same time, notes Austin, the crime rate has also declined to “historic low levels,” with juvenile arrests dropping by over 60 per cent during the time period he studied.

“If the rest of the country could match San Francisco’s rates, the number of individuals under correctional supervision would plummet from 7 million to 2 million,” Austin writes. “The nation’s 2.3 million prison and jail populations would decline to below 700,000 and ‘mass incarceration’ would be eliminated.”

Austin attributes some of the decline to major changes in California legislation enacted since 2009 that have sharply reduced the numbers of individuals in prison and jail,­including such nationally known efforts as Justice Realignment and the passage of Prop 47, which downgraded a number of nonviolent felonies, including drug possession, to misdemeanors.

But he notes that administrative reforms introduced over the last decade by city and county authorities help explain why San Francisco’s numbers are even lower than the state’s. The reforms, many of them introduced by current San Francisco DA George Gascon (who earlier served as police chief), include comprehensive programs aimed at diverting people from jail through assessing the risk of recidivism and other factors; providing targeted services to help those released from detention; and, uniquely, the city’s own Sentencing Commission, formed in 2013 and chaired by the DA. A system of “neighborhood courts” and a “sentencing planner” kept low-level offenders from entering the system in the first place through more careful assessment of the risks they pose to public safety.

Such reforms “maximized” the benefits already made possible through the state initiatives, Austin concluded.

San Francisco also adopted a new approach to drug crimes, partly in response to a scandal that shook up the city’s main crime lab and its narcotics unit in 2010. Under the new approach, drug prosecutions – which in 2009 represented 63 percent of the DA’s felony caseload­ dropped to 24 percent by 2014. The impact on the entire system was profound, Austin writes­--diverting a  greater proportion of convicted felons  from state prison to probation.

San Francisco DA George Gascon is scheduled to hold a press conference on the study later today.

The study is available HERE.

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