Jail Concerns: Budget Prioritized Over Public Safety?

A state rule bars the legislature from considering new laws that add to the prison population. Does this rule put Peninsula communities at risk?

As construction crews begin to build  nearby in Redwood City, some Peninsula residents are concerned that San Mateo County is prioritizing money over public safety. 

In 2007, with California prisons facing an overcrowding crisis, the Senate Public Safety Committee began a policy known as “Receivership/Overcrowding Crisis Aggravation,” known as ROCA.

ROCA is an informal policy that prevents the committee from considering any legislation that would increase the prison population or add additional time onto sentencing guidelines for certain crimes.

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe says ROCA can hinder efforts to address important criminal issues.

“Money rather than justice is driving things,” Wagstaffe said last week.

Wagstaffe explained that, since 2007, it is often only high-profile cases brought to the attention of the media that can lead to an exception to that rule.

One such example is Chelsea’s Law, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2010 in response to the case of Chelsea King, a teenager killed by a sex offender. The law stated that anyone convicted of certain against children would receive life in prison without parole.

Though the law increased the prison population, an exception was made by way of an off-set of releasing other prisoners.

Wagstaffe expressed concern that, in other less sensational cases, such as the issue of elder abuse, ROCA prevents effective action from being done to curb the problem.

In the 1990s, before the prison overcrowding situation, Wagstaffe said bills addressing elder abuse would likely have easily passed.

Oakland Senator Loni Hancock, the current Chair of the Public Safety Committee, has continued the policy set by her predecessors, according to her Chief of Staff Hans Hermann.

Hermann insists that, though the situation is unfortunate, crime rates have dropped since 2007, casting doubt upon the idea that safety is at risk from limiting the inmate population.

Carlos Alcala, spokesperson for San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, expressed concern over the value of prison in reducing crime.

“We have found over the years that adding to the prison population has not made society safer,” he said.

Alcala added that the ban on increasing the prison population may have the potential benefit, in the eyes of Assemblyman Ammiano, of encouraging greater emphasis on rehabilitation and other more effective punishments.


PATCH WANTS TO KNOW - What do you think of the issue of "budget vs. public safety?" Is the informal policy putting locals in danger? Or does the prioritization make sense in economically difficult times such as now? Tell us in the comments below.


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