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San Diego Supervisors OK plan to address social issues without relying on jail

The San Diego Central Jail is shown on March 11, 2021.
Zoë Meyers
The San Diego Central Jail is shown on March 11, 2021.

San Diego County supervisors Tuesday unanimously approved a data-driven public safety plan to address the root causes of social problems such as homelessness without resorting to incarceration as the first response.

As proposed by Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, the plan calls for the county to:

  • conduct an empirical analysis of jail, law enforcement and other public safety data;
  • develop policy recommendations to safely reduce the number of inmates by investing in alternatives for those who do not pose a public safety threat;
  • perform a "gap analysis" to identify holes in current treatments, facilities and programs as an alternative to incarceration;
  • analyze costs, savings and long-term fiscal impacts to determine where to invest resources;
  • recommend candidates for jail diversion programs, which could include those struggling with homelessness, drug use and mental health challenges, or young offenders; and
  • focus on residents experiencing substance use, mental health, poverty and homelessness at a greater rate, including young adults, LGBTQ individuals, the disabled and communities of color.

According to Lawson-Remer's office, following research and public input, the board will review proposals and budget recommendations starting in February 2022. The final comprehensive report should be ready in February 2023.


The county has paid out over $14 million in settlements over the last 13 months stemming from cases involving in-custody deaths and allegations of lapses in jail medical care, according to Lawson-Remer's office.

Because of public health and physical distancing protocols mandated during the COVID-19 pandemic, "law enforcement officials have been less likely to book people into jail for minor offenses often associated with homelessness or behavioral health issues, such as public intoxication, encroachment, loitering and illegal lodging," Lawson-Remer's office stated.

"As a result, San Diego County's jail population shrunk by a whopping 25 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, from an average daily number of 5,630 to 4,197. The jail population fell even lower in the first half of 2021, according to the (county) District Attorney's Office, to about 3,800 people in custody."

During Tuesday's meeting, Lawson-Remer said jails are often used for the wrong reasons, with real consequences when the wrong people are incarcerated.

Along with the challenge of keeping homeless people out of jail, "COVID, once again, is making us look at our reality in a new light," she added.


"This is about making sure we are investing tax dollars in a way that is not only aligned with our values but aligned with what the data says is the most effective way to solve complicated social issues," Lawson-Remer later said in a statement. "If we were as efficient at constructing homes and providing services as we are at building jails, there would be a lot fewer people experiencing homelessness on our streets."

Her colleague Nora Vargas said that "for too long, our criminal justice system has disproportionately impacted communities of color without enough of a focus placed on the underlying causes of why individuals resort to crime."

Vargas, who is also board vice-chairwoman, said new data-driven approaches "will allow us to more accurately address root causes that lead to crime, as well as addressing the manners (in which) law enforcement interact with the communities they're intended to protect.

"These actions today are just the beginning of improving and evolving our criminal justice system to meet the times we are in," she added.

Supervisor Joel Anderson said he was happy to support the initiative.

"There are appropriate alternatives to the jail system for many, including those who require mental health intervention, but we must also have a balanced approach when looking at the criminal justice system," Anderson said. "I want any future actions that come out of this study to be effective and not lead to more crime."

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.