San Jose officials say crime is up, advocates say data is misleading
Santa Clara County Main Jail. Photo by Newsha Naderzad.

    San Jose officials say early jail release policies have led to a spike in crime — and they’re searching for solutions.

    Violent crimes, including rape, robbery, homicide and aggravated assault, went up 10.4% from 2020 to 2021, according to San Jose Police Department data – and 2022 may be on track to beat it.

    Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmembers Matt Mahan and Magdalena Carrasco partly attribute the 2021 rise to pandemic-driven emergency bail orders that resulted in nearly a third of Santa Clara County’s jail population to be released – majority of which were individuals who were awaiting trial. The 2020 policies included releasing low-level offenders arrested for non-violent crimes in an effort to reduce jail overcrowding after COVID-19 infections skyrocketed in the county. Part of those pandemic-era policies also included the California Supreme Court decision to eliminate cash bail for those who cannot afford it.

    Crimes reported in San Jose in 2020 and 2021. Photo Courtesy of the San Jose Police Department.

    San Jose leaders want stricter detention guidelines for people who are re-arrested if they fail to appear after a felony charge or have a violent or serious offense history. They also want the state to pay for interim detoxification centers for arrestees who need treatment instead of landing back on the streets or in jail. The proposal is coming before the Rules and Open Government Committee on Wednesday. 

    “I don’t think anyone knows definitively why we’re seeing a rise in crime and there’s so many variables but regardless, I’m seeing a public safety system that has some significant gaps,” Mahan told San José Spotlight.

    He pointed to SJPD data showing the same 30 people have been re-arrested at least 10 times within a year. He said these data indicates a breakdown in the system.

    Misleading correlation 

    But justice advocates say there is no correlation between those released from jail awaiting trial and an increase in violent crime – so tying this data to jail release policies is misleading.

    For example, the 30 arrestees Mahan pointed to were arrested and re-arrested for low-level non-violent street crime, which doesn’t support the argument that jail release policies have increased violent crime.

    “If they’re not being convicted and the charges are dropped by the district attorney, that’s not a problem with release,” W. David Ball, a law professor at Santa Clara University, told San José Spotlight. “That is a problem with the district attorney.”

    Ball said people are often re-arrested for failing to appear not for committing violent crimes or reoffending. Those actions are not typically cause for concern.

    “A lot of folks, some who are unhoused, lead really disorderly lives, and that’s why they don’t appear in court. Or they don’t have access to reliable transportation,” he said. Ball added that the investment in interim detox centers isn’t the right approach because individuals can only access them if they have a run in with the criminal justice system. “It suggests to me that once somebody has entered the system that is the gateway to get to treatment. And I don’t think that that is the best way of handling it.”

    Mahan said it’s a great alternative to jailing people with substance abuse issues.

    County data shows 95% of those defendants released were not re-arrested for a new crime or for violating terms of their supervised release.

    “This is just fear mongering,” Raj Jayadev, founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, told San José Spotlight. “The mayor and councilmembers are conflating things on purpose that are factually untrue. The most significant issue… is that they are talking about people that are actually legally innocent. They haven’t been convicted of a crime.”

    According to city officials, 90% of Santa Clara County jail inmates are awaiting trial.

    Mahan said it’s not necessarily about the numbers. He said it only takes a few individuals to keep the community unsafe.

    “To me this does not have to do with whether the rate of crime is increasing or decreasing. It has to do with how we improve public safety,” Mahan said.

    However, Charles Hendrickson, assistant public defender for Santa Clara County, said preventing pre-trial releases does not reduce crimes.

    “California has experimented with mass incarceration and found it does not work. It hollows out our most vulnerable communities and doesn’t make us any safer,” Hendrickson told San José Spotlight. “What works is meeting people where they are at, gathering lots of information about them so a judge can make sensible release decisions with an eye to improving the person’s life circumstance while protecting public safety and ensuring their return to court.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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