The need for a new jail or expensive repairs and updates is clear. For safety reasons we know we need to do something to ensure that people in the jail are provided with safe humane care. The trick is assessing the actual level of need and how that might be best accommodated. It does not make sense for the project to be any bigger than necessary. We should not seek to be a penal colony county that collects inmates from across the state simply because we’ve built a mega jail. Mega jails are costly, ineffective and only serve the purpose to house and punish people.
What we need is a humane approach to law enforcement and public safety that endeavors to manage and stabilize our at risk citizens, encourage self-sufficiency, reduce the causes and circumstances that lead to jailing and ultimately save ourselves money.
A local organization, The Restorative Community Coalition has developed a program modeled upon a successful program that does just those things in San Francisco. It is based, not on jailing people, but on preventing incarceration via treatment and services. Stable housing is paramount. People must first have housing before they can begin to take advantage of the tools and skills training needed to become more participatory and productive neighbors. Investing in affordable housing is less costly than institutional incarceration and its pre-emptive potentials generally reap far greater benefits.
Certainly not always, but more often than not, investment in humanity result in more positive outcomes than short-sighted, arbitrary punishment. A quick look at many of the penal systems of our western European neighbors should offer ample confirmation. Our county budget spends the biggest chunk of its budget on public safety. We can do better and since we need to spend a lot on either a new jail or expensive repairs to the current jail, now is the time to do that change in thinking and change how we address public safety.
As a social worker for 38 years, I will always look at how we can use our budgets in ways that can lift people out of poverty and towards becoming working members of our community. By doing this we not only acquire the productivity of these fellow citizens but we also save a lot of money on public safety and incarceration.