Op-ed: The truth about incarceration in Santa Clara County
The Santa Clara County Main Jail, located at 150 W Hedding St. in San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

If we’ve learned anything during the COVID-19 crisis, it’s that—first—we should have been investing in health care and housing for everyone and—second—we can’t go back to the ways things were before.

Our county has an opportunity on Tuesday to apply these lessons. The question of whether to build a new jail allows us to re-evaluate the county’s use of incarceration and to re-imagine an alternative world where deep and smart investment in behavioral health services, substance abuse treatment, housing, free community college, job training, health care access and universal basic income makes our community healthier and prevents incarceration.

As a public health professional, a behavioral health provider and a community organizer who was formerly incarcerated, together we have unique insight into some truths about incarceration that might surprise you.

Truth #1: incarcerating human beings actually has a negative effect on public safety (says study after study). Specifically, studies show that incarceration, especially of young people, makes it more likely that the young person will re-offend.

Decarceration, similarly, does not cause crime rates to increase. For example, as our county’s jail population has decreased since 2014, so too have crime rates in San Jose, our county’s biggest city. Most recently—in the wake of the consensus of health experts that jails serve as incubators for the spread of COVID-19—Santa Clara County reduced its jail population by hundreds. Again, since then, violent and property crime rates in the county decreased. It turns out reducing jail populations is easier than the current sheriff and our county’s leaders lead us to believe.

Truth #2: many incarcerated people shouldn’t be in jail. Over 25% of the people locked up in our county’s expensive, $300 million a year incarceration system have a serious mental illness.

Jails are the worst place you can imagine for folks who are experiencing the frightening symptoms of a mental illness and need to be surrounded by supportive caregivers, loving family members and a therapeutic environment. The suicide rate in jail is almost five times the rate of the general public in California.

What if behavioral health professionals responded to mental health emergencies instead of police? Sometimes the only reason a person experiencing a mental health emergency ends up in jail is because law enforcement responds to a 911 call. Perhaps a better question is what if any person experiencing a mental health crisis could access life-saving services without waiting and without worrying about a huge ambulance or hospital bill?

Truth #3: unnecessary incarceration hurts our entire society. People in prisons and jails are disproportionately likely to have chronic health problems including diabetes, high blood pressure and HIV, as well as substance use and mental health problems. Mass incarceration has shortened the overall U.S. life expectancy by five years.

Our homeless shelters, rivers and streets are now burgeoning with people who suffer with the collateral consequences of punishment; effects such as homelessness that last long after someone has served their sentence. Lastly, the loved ones of incarcerated people have poorer health outcomes, experience social isolation, economic disruption and mental health challenges.

The generational harm resulting from incarceration is especially damaging to Black and brown communities since people of color are overrepresented in our jails. Currently, Latina/o/x residents are overrepresented in the county jail by nearly two-fold, and Black residents are overrepresented by nearly four-fold compared to their percentage in the county overall. Compared with white individuals, Black individuals are 6.5 times more likely and Latina/o/x individuals are three times more likely to be booked in county jails.

Truth #4: there are alternatives to incarceration. As residents of a country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world, we’ve been acculturated to believe that there are no alternatives.

First, reinvesting money from the criminal system into prevention efforts harnesses the cost-savings from maintaining a jail toward a happier, healthier and more resilient community.

Second, evidence from community experiences shows that building behavioral health services into our crisis response continuum—with regional crisis call centers, mobile crisis response teams and crisis receiving and stabilization—reduces arrests, incarceration and violent interactions between people with mental illness and law enforcement. And, good news, there’s new federal funding for these ideas!

And third, in other countries—and ours—justice-oriented solutions like victim-centered restorative justice programs, rehabilitation and work-release programs, fines and de-criminalizing poverty actually work and are cheaper than jail. And for those with mental illness, treatment is the single most effective way to reduce reoffending.

We wholeheartedly support county Supervisor Susan Ellenberg’s proposal to initiate a community dialogue about and study of community-based alternatives to incarceration, and to expand funding for behavioral health treatment outside of jail. And there’s no question that we need to renovate our two current facilities—they’re deplorable and a new jail won’t fix that.

We hope the entire Board of Supervisors can join Supervisor Elenberg in putting the truly retrograde idea of a third jail behind us. Let’s invest in forward-looking, proven solutions rather than investing in a monument to our county safety net’s failure.

Yvonne Maxwell is a licensed clinical social worker and executive director of Ujima Adult and Family Services. Reymundo Espinoza is CEO of Gardner Health Services. Joseph Vejar is a community organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug, a formerly incarcerated person and co-founder of Prisoners United.

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