County looks to keep jail population numbers low by exploring alternatives to incarceration

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Article written by Caleb Lunetta, Kelly Davis . Click here to read this article on The San Diego Union Tribune website.

If Dion Caporrimo had not looked over at the right time, he might have missed the flier posted on the wall of a San Diego County lock-up mentioning housing services for people getting out of jail.

“I had to reach out and ask for (services),” he said, adding that housing is an essential component in keeping justice-involved people out of jail.

“The longer someone stays out homeless, the more possibilities to commit crimes,” he said.

Caporrimo spoke at a Jan. 31 meeting, one of two “listening sessions” hosted by the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, seeking input on where the county is falling short on alternatives to incarceration. It was part of a larger effort, called Safety Through Services, proposed in October 2021 by county Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer.

The county needs to stop using its jails “as a first-line response to dealing with so many of our social challenges and social ills,” such as drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness, Lawson-Remer said when she introduced the proposal.

SANDAG, the regional planning agency, which has a criminal-justice research arm, was hired by the county to pull together a study — which is scheduled to go before the Board of Supervisors on Feb. 28 — that has four key objectives:

  • Analyze how COVID-19 reduced San Diego’s jail population and whether the reductions impacted public safety;
  • Examine policy changes that would permanently reduce San Diego’s jail population;
  • Develop recommendations to expand access to jail alternatives for people who deemed not to be a public-safety risk;
  • Look at whether cost savings can be achieved by funneling people into services instead of jail.

Since the start of the pandemic, San Diego’s jail population has remained at historic lows due to measures like early releases and changes to booking criteria aimed at reducing the number of incarcerated people.

In the months leading up to the pandemic, roughly 5,600 people were housed in San Diego jails. Currently, the jails hold just over 3,900 people. And, SANDAG researchers found, jail bookings have dropped 42 percent since before the pandemic.

“One of the goals of this project was to look at, what is the longer-term impact of these policy changes?” said Sarah Cueva Egan, an associate research analyst with SANDAG. “Were there significant increases or decreases in criminal justice contacts, arrests, citations?”

Researchers looked at law enforcement contacts during the pandemic and found that around 75 percent of roughly 20,000 people studied could be candidates for diversion programs. They either committed low-level crimes — such as narcotics possession or so-called quality-of-life crimes, like being drunk in public, trolley fare violation or illegal lodging — or were placed on a 72-hour mental health hold.

“This is data that points to the types of populations that are hard to reach that tend to have repeat justice system contacts,” said Cueva Egan. “So how do we reach these people?”

According to surveys SANDAG gathered last spring from crime victims, formerly incarcerated people and social services providers, barriers to services include long waiting lists, restrictions on eligibility and, as Caporrimo experienced, a lack of available information about what services are available.

Caporrimo, 52, said during the meeting that he is trying to be proactive in his efforts to get his life in order, but it has been challenging.

“I’m trying to not get lost in the system,” he said.

Jerry Hall, a behavioral health advocate, said at the Jan. 31 meeting that a necessary first step would be to supply everyone being released from jail with a packet that includes information on everything from housing assistance to sober living facilities to job training programs.

“It would be a good idea to ensure that everyone inside gets a handout of some sort of that lists all programs and services,” he said. “Programs and services are great, but if people don’t know they’re there, they’ve really failed.”

According to interim reports from SANDAG, researchers will urge the county to implement something called the Sequential Intercept Model that helps communities identify gaps in services at each level in the criminal justice system. The aim is to intercept and divert a person into services that meet specific needs, whether it be mental health care or drug treatment, instead of incarceration.

Los Angeles County adopted the intercept model as part of its “Care First, Jails Last” plan, which has been cited as a model by advocates.

“The good news for San Diego is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said Darwin Fishman, a member of the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego and the North County Equity and Justice Coalition.

Fishman attended both SANDAG listening sessions and noted that the Los Angeles County report has more than 100 recommendations.

“They’re really strong and clearly connected to the exact point of (alternatives to incarceration),” he said.

Fishman said a major component of the Los Angeles initiative that he’d like to see in San Diego County involves the expansion of crisis intervention teams. Currently, San Diego County uses mobile crisis response teams, known as MCRTs, for a variety of 911 and emergency calls — from incidents involving mental health to homelessness to drug addiction.

Launched in January 2021, the teams consist of mental health clinicians, case managers and peer support specialists who seek to place an individual in a support program and, in many cases, divert them from custody.

Last year, county officials announced that all 10 local police departments, as well as the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, have the ability to refer mental health crisis calls to MCRTs.

Bolstering the crisis response system in San Diego County is one of many issues Fishman and his fellow advisory group members — a committee of academics and advocates focused on working with the county on creating alternatives to incarceration programs locally — would like to see discussed in SANDAG’s final report.

Fishman said other recommendations made in Los Angeles County include increasing transparency and communication between government agencies, further decriminalizing low-level offenses and ensuring a universal standard of quality for third party providers working with law enforcement agencies and the county on alternatives to incarceration.

And, similar to Los Angeles County, Fishman would like Safety Through Services to become a permanent office with staff to handle outreach and collect and compile data to ensure the program is reaching the right people.