August 27, 2021 (SFChronicle.com)
San Francisco’s jail population has plummeted since the start of 2020. Like many counties across the state, the county released hundreds of people from its local facilities to stave off COVID-19 outbreaks early in the pandemic.
But the difference between San Francisco and other counties in California is what happened after the initial decline. The data suggest that while the county was not alone in substantially reducing its jail population at the start of the pandemic, it has kept that population low for longer than most other California counties — and that’s probably due, at least in part, to District Attorney Chesa Boudin, whose office had already prioritized reducing jail populations prior to the pandemic.
The Chronicle analyzed population data for jails and other local facilities from the California Board of State and Community Corrections to examine jail population trends. From January to May 2020, the statewide jail population fell by 29%. San Francisco lowered its jail population by about 38% — more than the state average but behind 10 other counties, including three in the Bay Area.
However, from May 2020 to March 2021, the latest month with data available, the statewide jail population per capita ticked back up by 19%. For instance, Solano and San Mateo counties both reduced their jail populations by more than San Francisco initially; however, both counties’ jail populations rebounded in the subsequent months, particularly Solano’s, which rose 70% from its May 2020 low.
San Francisco, on the other hand, barely increased its jail population during that time period. The number of people in San Francisco county jails went up by just 5% from May 2020 through March 2021.
While county jail populations have increased since last May, they’re still mostly lower than they were pre-pandemic. As of March 2021, the statewide jail population remained about 16% lower than in January 2020.
San Francisco has kept its jail population even lower than the statewide average. It remains 35% lower than it was pre-pandemic, going from 133 to 87 people per 100,000 county residents. (Its average jail population has stayed around 87 per 100,000 as of July, per the sheriff’s website.)
Even before reducing its jail population in response to COVID-19, San Francisco already had a lower jail population per capita than most other populous counties in the state. Its January 2020 incarceration rate was 133 per 100,000, lower than all but three counties with 100,000 people or more: San Mateo, Contra Costa and Marin.
Jail populations statewide typically consist mostly of people awaiting trials or sentencing but also include people with prison sentences who have been transferred from state prisons. San Francisco’s jail population consists almost entirely of the former, with just 19 sentenced incarcerated people among the county’s 764-person jail population as of July.
So how did San Francisco reduce its jail population by so much at the start of the pandemic and manage to maintain that lower number?
Rachel Marshall, communications director at the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, said the office reduced its population quickly by implementing multiple strategies at once, helped along by the policies of the director of Jail Health Services, Dr. Lisa Pratt, who recommended that the county reduce its jail population from 1,000 to 700 to 800 to allow for social distancing measures.
After Pratt’s recommendation on March 24, according to Marshall, the office conducted a thorough review of the jail population to figure out whom they could safely release. They let go people with 60 days or fewer remaining in their sentences; they released people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies; and they reviewed the cases of every person incarcerated in the jails to identify those who could feasibly be placed in housing, released on probation or brought out of the jails.
Many other counties adopted at least some population-reducing policies at the start of the pandemic — for instance, San Mateo and Sacramento counties both released people with 60 days or fewer remaining in their sentences. And on March 20, the state Judicial Council issued guidance setting bail at $0 for people accused of lower-level crimes in every county, a more moderate version of Boudin’s decision to end cash bail entirely prior to the pandemic.
But where San Francisco differed was in the multitude of policies implemented quickly — and in the district attorney’s long-term goals, which COVID-19 allowed the office to realize more quickly than might have occurred otherwise, Marshall said.
“The principle of reducing incarceration is very much a part of this office’s mission,” she said. “We were able to reduce that population much faster than we’d envisioned, because the pandemic forced us to be under a pressure cooker.”
Because the population-reducing measures implemented by the district attorney early on fit so well with Boudin’s long-term goals, many have stayed in place for longer than other counties. For instance, the office still reviews every case individually. And it still doesn’t allow cash bail, unlike most other counties, which were able to start setting bail for lower-level offenses again in June. It’s likely that many of these reforms will remain in place throughout Boudin’s time in office, pandemic or not.
“This general approach and way of working is going to continue. The DA office is going to individually determine whether someone should stay in custody and doing (so) in a collaborative way,” Josie Halpern-Finnerty, director of the Safety and Justice Challenge project for the District Attorney’s Office, told The Chronicle. “There’s no going back, only going forward.”
Susie Neilson is a data reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle. Previously, she was a science fellow at Business Insider, covered COVID-19 and criminal justice for KQED and worked as a private investigator at the Mintz Group. Her work has also appeared in NPR, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and The New Yorker, among other publications. She is a 2019 graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where she studied investigative and multimedia reporting.
Read more about the data team and their work.