News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

May 21, 2020

Alameda County is jailing fewer people. Let’s keep it that way.

By David Cremins

Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail — the third largest in California and fifth largest in the nation — is infamous for violence, inhumane conditions, and labor exploitation. It is now, however, holding around two-thirds of its usual population. In response to the coronavirus, county officials, including Sheriff Greg Ahern, have coordinated to release hundreds of people early, minimize arrests, and comply with statewide orders lowering most bail to $0. Most importantly, the county’s District Attorney (DA) Nancy O’Malley has reduced her office’s rate of prosecution, filing 70% fewer cases in order “to keep people from going into the system.”

These life-saving decisions have come as dozens of staff and people held at Santa Rita have tested positive for the virus. However, they also raise questions about whether our DA will seek to minimize use of legal punishment when she is no longer faced with the pressure of a pandemic. Once this crisis abates, for whom will it truly be the end of lockdown?

Across Alameda County, citizens and officials have demanded quicker and more expansive decarceration from O’Malley and Ahern, with groups like Santa Rita Jail Solidarity taking up the national call to #FreeThemAll. County Public Defender Brendon Woods has additionally advocated for the release of everyone in Santa Rita with fewer than 6 months remaining on their sentence, prompting O’Malley to accuse Woods of “grandstanding.” 

But Woods and the activists are correct, that actions taken (or not taken) at Santa Rita are matters of life and death. To understand their urgency, we need only look at the horrific situations unfolding in New York and Chicago jails, two of the worst hotspots in the world. As has been well-documented, our nation’s detention centers pose a “uniquely American risk” in the fight against Covid-19, with about 200,000 people typically moving between cells and surrounding communities every week. Of these, the majority have not been convicted of a crime and a disproportionate number are Black and Latinx, including over three-fourths at Santa Rita. 

Across the United States, efforts to decarcerate for the sake of public health have drawn mixed reactions, to put it mildly. On the one hand, Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights attorney and candidate for DA in Manhattan, argues this “alignment across all fields calling for a reduction of the population in prisons and jails…[demonstrates] we are engaged [in] mass incarceration unnecessarily, not for public safety but for the sake of convenience, fines, and fees.” At the same time, police unions and prosecutors have insisted that any reduction in incarceration threatens public safety, a claim for which there is no empirical support.

To her credit, O’Malley has avoided this fear mongering, instead saying that we can keep the community safe while imprisoning far fewer people. If she wants to continue to keep Alameda’s jail population low, she does not need to look far for a model: across the Bay, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin has worked since his election last year to eliminate bail and reduce pretrial detention

However, it seems unlikely that lasting reform is on its way to the East Bay. O’Malley characterizes herself as a “strong advocate for victims’ rights”, but her sympathies appear to be contingent on the identity of the alleged criminal. After all, O’Malley is known for her hesitance to investigate cop-caused deaths. In one infamous incident, she accepted a $10,000 campaign contribution from Fremont police officers before clearing them in the fatal shooting of a pregnant teenager. This was followed by hundreds of thousands of dollars of further support from police unions, helping O’Malley defeat a progressive challenger, Pamela Price, in 2018.

Neither O’Malley nor Ahern will be on the ballot again until 2022, though California will have a choice in November of this year to get rid of most money bail. For now, we must challenge the narrative, often amplified by government officials and media figures, which equates any shrinking of the state’s punishment apparatus with an increase in crime. According to sociology professor and author Alex Vitale, we need to “use the health emergency to remind people just how terrible the use of incarceration is broadly” and instead demand our leaders invest in the wellbeing of communities instead of tearing them apart. 

The same point was recently made by Oakland-based non-profit Human Impact Partners (HIP) and a coalition of local political, legal and advocacy organizations in an open letter urging Alameda County to “divest from jails…and policing…[and invest more in] health care, affordable housing, living wages, quality schools, environmental justice, and adequate transportation.” Unfortunately, these pleas were not heeded by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, as they voted 3-2 on May 12 to fund $318 million over three years for new staff at Santa Rita, sparking outrage from many of the signatory groups on the HIP letter. 

Hopefully, those at Santa Rita will soon be freed from the imminent risk of illness or death — but let’s not return to business as usual once the outbreak is contained. We should continue to reduce our jail and prison populations and redirect resources to social programs that address the root causes of crime. Alameda County is moving in the right direction in lessening the needless suffering caused by imprisonment. We should keep it that way.