Cordell: Rejecting a new county jail
The Santa Clara County Main Jail in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

I urge the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to reject the County Executive Office’s recommendation to build a new maximum security jail and, instead, vote to create alternatives to incarceration.

In the aftermath of the 2015 tragic death of Michael Tyree, a jail inmate suffering from mental illness who was murdered by three corrections officers, I was asked to chair the County’s Blue Ribbon Commission, created to evaluate the county’s jail operations. We found many problems that seriously jeopardized the welfare of individuals held in our jails and made 100 recommendations.

More than six years later, many of our 100 recommendations have yet to be implemented. It has not helped that the sheriff, who resisted the commission’s inquiries, has stalled efforts by the jail’s civilian monitor to institute reforms.

Warehousing individuals in our jails is a dismal and failed response to those coping with mental illness and substance abuse, many of whom are also grappling with poverty. Yes, some individuals in our criminal legal system deserve to be punished, but there are many who deserve support and treatment, not incarceration.

Because warehousing people who can benefit from community services inevitably results in a cycle of incarceration, a bigger and bolder jail is not the answer. Creating community-rooted solutions that address the mental, physical and emotional needs of members of our county is the way forward.

The problems with our jails are not, for the most part, architectural; rather, it is the culture of the jails that is problematic. The culture of the county’s jails allowed for the murder of Michael Tyree; the culture has turned our jails into COVID super-spreaders; and the culture of the jails fosters inmate suicides. We should join progressive-minded cities and counties such as Los Angeles, Sacramento and Alameda that are embarking upon efforts to reform incarceration policies.

Following robust public engagement in 2021 that included in-person sessions, zoom gatherings and voter surveys, a broad swath of the community called for a path away from jails and toward community-rooted mental health treatment, substance abuse support, housing and poverty alleviating policies. The voices of those calling for reform matter. It would be unwise for our county leaders to ignore them.

On Jan. 25, the Board of Supervisors will decide whether to adopt alternatives to incarceration or to build a new jail. Will they vote to waste taxpayer dollars by expanding an antiquated and punitive system of incarceration, or will they vote to invest our tax dollars in community-based resources? We’ll be watching.

LaDoris H. Cordell is a retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge, former Independent Police Auditor for San Jose and former chair of the Santa Clara County Blue Ribbon Commission on jail reforms. She was the first African-American female judge to serve on both the municipal and superior court circuits in Northern California.

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