Op-Ed: The Troubling Direction Our County Justice System is Headed In

If the amount of crime and arrests in San Mateo County has gone down since 2005, why has the demand for funds for countywide criminal justice gone up more than 15 percent?


By Bob Cushman

I want to let my fellow citizens know that our local justice system is in trouble.

That is why I have prepared the report: Crime and Justice Processing Rates: San Mateo County and Statewide.

The report presents data about crime and the processing of adults through the San Mateo County justice system, from arrest to final disposition. It provides an overview of our county justice system and identifies areas that officials should focus on to better manage the ever-increasing demand for county revenues to support it.  

In his May, 2012 Budget Message, our County Manager, John Maltbie, told us that criminal justice, as a percentage of net county cost, has increased from 36 percent in Fiscal Year 2007-08 to 52 percent in Fiscal Year 2011-12. 

This ever-growing burden is a consequence of systemic challenges that impede the ability of our justice officials to collectively manage the workload. The San Mateo County justice system is in overdrive, but there is little understanding about what is increasing the system-wide workload and what can be done to manage it better without resorting to more of the same; i.e., a bigger jail.  

My report describes substantial systemic, system-wide challenges in San Mateo County, such as:

  • The data does not support the notion that jail crowding or increases in the workload of the justice system are the result of an increase in crime or an increase in adult arrests. Crime and adult arrests are declining, not increasing. County demographics favor stable to declining crime rates in the future. 
  • Our low crime and adult arrest rates mean that the San Mateo County response (budget, staffing, jail bed space, workload, etc.) should be much, much less than statewide, perhaps in the neighborhood of 50 percent of the statewide average rates per 100,000 population. The San Mateo County “response to crime” rates are much higher than expected. 
  • The approximate 20-percent increase in felony filings between 2005-2010 has taken place despite a decrease in crime and decrease in adult felony arrests.
  • More than one in every 10 adult arrestees is eventually released by law enforcement, without the arresting agency seeking prosecution.
  • A quarter of felony case dispositions are dismissed or acquitted. Though not convicted, many spend considerable time in jail pre-trial, some in maximum or medium security.
  • A large percentage of the jail bed space is being used to house pre-trial prisoners, not to punish people who have been sentenced. Only a small portion of the jail bed space is being used to incapacitate the truly dangerous.
  • The overuse of pre-trial detention compared to other counties may be a sign that pre-trial detention is being used to extract guilty pleas from people who are in jail simply because they cannot afford bail.
  • Our justice system is dependent upon guilty pleas to keep up with the workload. Over 98 percent of felony cases are settled before trial. There are fewer trials, either by court or jury, than statewide.
  • About one-third of our very large, active probation caseload is revoked each year. They re-enter the jail and the justice system, not as fresh arrests, but as probation violators. In this sense, the system may be feeding upon itself.


Over all, there is much that can be done to slim down and improve the administration of justice in San Mateo County, reduce current and future expenditures and still improve public safety. 

This is NOT the time to sit back, lulled by the “leave the driving to us” refrain of some of our leaders. It is a time to ask discerning questions. It is the time to become informed, and for each of us to form our own opinion about the direction our justice system is taking, including the construction and staffing of a very large, expensive new jail, and the extent to which the new, proposed sales tax revenue would be used to finance expanded justice system operations.

See the full report as a downloadable PDF document in the photos section of this article.


* Who is Bob Cushman? 

Bob Cushman is a retired criminal justice system consultant with over 40 years of experience assisting local law enforcement, courts and corrections agencies improve the administration of justice. He lives in Foster City, in San Mateo County, California. His most recent work has been as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice as a technical assistance provider to county-level justice systems seeking assistance with jail crowding or initiating a system-wide criminal justice coordinating committee.  He brings research and social science tools to help local jurisdictions better understand their criminal justice operations and find ways to improve them. He is published. He has a national reputation as a speaker, trainer, researcher, program evaluator, and demonstration project director.

* When asked what inspired him to do the research and voluntarily put together this report, Bob answered:

"I thought collecting some of the facts together might help engage citizens and alert them that our justice system needs attention. I could see our county - my county - going off in an ineffective and expensive direction.

From time to time I have volunteered my time to meet with various San Mateo County officials to discuss our justice system and, being in the business, I tend to keep an eye on developments in the local justice system here.

I find some of our key officials resistive to change and unwilling to address some basic problems with our local justice system. This has been pretty frustrating. I have gone public with my concerns only because this is my county. It is where I live.  In my work, I have recommended system changes including additional jail beds, where warranted. But, I have also recommended against them, too." 


haveapizza October 18, 2012 at 07:15 PM
How much to the bloated salaries and unafforable pensions the politicians have given to the various justice system employees contribute to this skyrocketing cost? My guess is, a whole lot of it.
Michael G. Stogner October 18, 2012 at 08:23 PM
You need to look no further than this Private Non Profit for the answer. Service League of San Mateo County http://serviceleague.org/Board_of_Directors.html Notice how many Supervisors are members, now go to their County website to see if they mention that they are members......They don't
MateoNative October 18, 2012 at 09:14 PM
This is actually pretty fascinating. I mean, if you look at it objectively, the numbers do imply that we could take a different direction than just "what's always been done." I hope at least one of our leaders steps up and starts a conversation like this. It would be a shame if a place as innovative as San Mateo County allows political or egotistical influence to prevent a better (and less expensive!) way for running our community!
Michael G. Stogner October 19, 2012 at 01:51 AM
There is a very small group of people in our county that benefit from the cottage industry associated with the Justice System.
Bob Cushman October 19, 2012 at 05:59 AM
Reply to "haveapizza" who commented at about 10pm on Oct 17th who asked about how much salaries and pensions contribute to the increasing cost of administering our San Mateo justice system. A 2012 Civil Grand Jury report says: "In 2011, the average annual salary for general employees in San Mateo County was $79,188. If public safety and probation officers are included, the average annual salary was $82,464." and..."beginning in 2013...the total amount of benefits as a percent of salary will increase from 61% to 68% barring other changes." So 61% in benefits needs to be added to these average salaries. Source: http://www.sanmateocourt.org/grandjury The Civil Grand Jury urged the County to rein in pension and benefits and also reduce the number of employees. Adding staff to operate the new jail will expand the number of county employees and increase their influence. Thanks for contributing to this discussion
Bob Cushman October 19, 2012 at 06:04 AM
Hi Michael: I do not quite understand the connection you are trying to make between the Service League and our justice system. Can you explain further. I do know that the Inmate Welfare Fund provides a great deal of the money to pay the Service League for the services they provide and that the recent Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP) report criticized the leadership of the Service League and their handling of the federally funded re-entry program. Tell us more and thank you for joining the disussion.
Bob Cushman October 19, 2012 at 06:09 AM
Mateo Native: Thank you for your constructive contribution to this discussion. I have been part of wonderful, very satisfying efforts to turn around troubled local justice systems elsewhere. It can be done. When it works everyone wins and it is very satisfying. We can all do better and we have the local talent to do so. Collecting objective data to replace the rhetoric and establish the facts is a good starting place. We cannot manage what we do not measure.
Jesse M. October 19, 2012 at 03:00 PM
Our county supes put the half-cent tax increase on the ballot saying that it is going to pay for things like parks and hospitals. The amount that those things are actually going to get is pretty insignificant compared to what it is going to cost to build and maintain the new jail. They got away with leaving the jail part out of the wording of the ballot measure because they hadn't yet approved the actual building plan. Well, they have now and it's all ready to be bought and payed for.
Bob Cushman October 19, 2012 at 04:00 PM
Jesse: The county simply does not yet have the money to both build and operate a new jail so Jail construction and staffing may well compete with the other very worthwhile things that taxpayers expect Measure A to rescue. There are a number of counties that have expanded jail space which remains empty because they cannot afford to staff the new bed space. That could happen here. The 2012 Civil Grand Jury reported it will take $40 million a year to operate our new jail, so it is the operating costs that we need to pay attention to. The expected $155 in construction costs can be financed by debt. The operating costs cannot. In four years these operating costs will exceed the estimated cost of construction. Where is this money to come from? We are at an important "tipping point". Despite a very low crime rate the administration of justice is threatening to break the bank. To what extent can we continue to allow our justice operations to crowd out important services needed by all county residents?
Jim Somers October 19, 2012 at 06:33 PM
Bob; Perhaps you should consider run for county supervisor, platform from which your voice can be more broadly heard.
Michael G. Stogner October 19, 2012 at 08:01 PM
The Service League of San Mateo County is a non-profit agency that develops, coordinates, and delivers in-custody programs, services, and other activities within all San Mateo County jails. The agency delivers after-release programs and services at five program sites in the community. Service League programs provide: Humanitarian Educational Substance Abuse Recovery Spiritual Personal Growth Services For 50 years, we have delivered compassion and created hope for thousands of county jail inmates and their families . . . and thanks to your generous support, we will continue to provide services to these ones so much in need of a helping hand and patient ear. OUR VISION: Every inmate and former inmate in San Mateo County will have access to the programs, services and support networks they need to successfully re-enter the community as contributing citizens and responsible family members . Everyday our volunteers and staff live up to a promise we made 50 years ago...
Bob Cushman October 19, 2012 at 08:49 PM
Jim: Thanks for the vote of confidence. The report represent an attempt to have people look at our justice operations through a new lens-- as an intergovernmental and interagency justice system. Today, the focus is on departments, not the way the entire system works. And we need to find better ways to steer, not just row harder. I think I can best contribute as an advisor. Our Supervisors cannot be experts at all facets of county government and, while I know a lot about how the justice system works, I would come up short in lots of other subject areas. "MateoNative" commented: "I hope at least one of our leaders steps up and starts a conversation like this." Be nice if one of our current members of the Board of Supervisors would do this.
Bob Cushman October 19, 2012 at 08:58 PM
Michael: Thanks for the clarification of this additional comment. The Service League certainly provides some great in-custody programs and has a wonderful group of volunteers. These help "normalize" the custodial environment, which helps both staff and inmates. Many citizens do not realize, though, that the money that finances the Service League comes not from the county budget, but from a special "tax" or assessment on inmate purchases from the inmate canteens, vending machines, telephone calls, etc. By law, the money goes into an Inmate Welfare Fund, which is to be administered in the best interests of the inmates.
Jim C October 20, 2012 at 05:03 PM
As a layman, I really don't know what to make of this. You might very well be correct; or maybe you're a liberal loon who has a problem with the criminal justice system on principal. It would be interesting if The Patch could get the other side to answer your arguments. Liberal loon or not, one thing that I ABSOLUTELY agree with you about is that people waiting to stand trial should not be in jail an inordinate amount of time. The right to a speedy trial seems to have been lost. Maybe, in addition to or instead of a new jail, we need more courts and judges...or maybe the rules of the courtroom need to be tightened up so there is less time wasted and more time spent serving the public. Either way, this is certainly food for thought. Thank you for putting it out there for discussion.
Bob Cushman October 20, 2012 at 06:44 PM
Jim: Thank you so much for your comment. This is perfect. I think most layman would be surprised by the information in this report. It gives a new and very different perspective of our justice system. It is understandable that you and others might not quite know what to make of it. It is quite natural to do a reality check, see what the other side has to say, etc. You and other San Mateo County citizens are smart enough to sort this out, given the relevant information. I really applaud Jennifer Van Der Kleut of Redwood City-Woodside Patch for encouraging this discussion. I must admit, too, that this "going public" is new to me.
Michael G. Stogner October 21, 2012 at 12:55 AM
The Kazarian case is a good example of a person who should/could have qualified electronic monitoring, if Sheriff Greg Munks would authorize it. Charged with 17 felony counts of child molestation, Bail was $1,000,000 he could not afford nor did he want to put up and lose $100,000. At time of trial he was offered a substantial reduction of charges for a guilt plea, he declined went to trial was found NOT GUILY on ALL COUNTS. Our District Attorney missed 100% of the counts.
Michael G. Stogner October 21, 2012 at 12:57 AM
I forgot to mention Mr. Kazarian was in our jail for 11 months.
Bob Cushman October 21, 2012 at 02:36 AM
Michael: The Kazarian case is probably the WORST example of a candidate for any kind of pretrial release! He would be among the LAST on my list of people who might be released on electronic monitoring, or any other pretrial release program. This is a very atypical case involving very serious charges. Arguing for release of potential predators just puts fear in the hearts of the rest of us. It works against adopting reasonable reforms. It is true, though, that the 2012 Civil Grand Jury has urged the Sheriff to begin using electronic monitoring to grant pretrial release to highly screened, carefully selected pretrial prisoners. Source: http://www.sanmateocourt.org/documents/grand_jury/2011/retirement_costs.pdf Other groups have made this same recommendation. This would also reduce jail crowding. The Sheriff simply will not use it, for any pretrial prisoner. It is also true that many felony defendants have their cases dismissed. My report shows that a quarter of our felony defendants have their cases dismissed or are acquitted. I do not think the public understands the extent of this problem. Yet many of these men and women are forced to serve extensive time in pretrial jail, even though their case never results in a conviction. (See page, 21, Table 7A of my report). There are many, many more appropriate examples that could be used to argue for the need for reform than the one you have cited here.
Michael G. Stogner October 21, 2012 at 03:26 AM
Bob, The reason I mentioned this case was he had no priors, his alleged victim had moved away a long time ago so no or minimal risk and he was a business owner and was president of the Chamber of Commerce. The District Attorney knew he had a weak case, the prosecutor told the jury when listening to a taped phone call between the alleged victim and the defendant to "Listen to what is Not Said" The reason he tried this angle was he knew that nothing was said that was incriminating. That's why the jury came back 0 for 17 counts, prosecutorial misconduct
Michael G. Stogner October 21, 2012 at 03:27 AM
I meant to say prosecutorial misconduct possibility.


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