Hall of Justice to close no later than 2021

Sam Moore

San Francisco’s Hall of Justice, notorious for its frequent sewage overflows, asbestos-laden walls and — most notably — high chances of crumbling in the event of a large earthquake, will close no later than 2021, Mayor London Breed announced Thursday.

The ominous gray building spans an entire city block at 850 Bryant St. It houses several criminal justice-related city departments, the city’s criminal courts and County Jail 4, which holds roughly 300 incarcerated people on the seventh floor. It was deemed seismically unsafe and marked for demolition in 1996, but has since remained open. 

The Hall of Justice is “one of the city’s most dangerous buildings,” with a high probability of posing a seismic “crisis situation” that would result in over 100 casualties and more than 70% building damage if a 7.9 magnitude earthquake occurred along the San Andreas fault, according to an analysis published by the Controller’s Office in 2017.

Several of the city’s courts and criminal justice departments recently relocated out of the Hall of Justice, but the issue of when and how to relocate County Jail 4 continues to spark debate. Breed’s plan to close the jail by 2021 was met with criticism at a Board of Supervisors hearing Friday from city officials and local organizations who say the jail should be closed much sooner. 

“Everyone who works there is being moved out of the building,” Supervisor Matt Haney said. “The only group we don’t have a plan for are the people incarcerated there, and the people who work directly with them. This is unacceptable, it is shameful and it needs to change.”

Haney highlighted dysfunctions in the jail’s processing system, including that over 90% of its inmates have not been convicted of any crimes and are being held while awaiting pretrial, sometimes for months or even years at a time.  

The mayor’s long-term plan includes demolishing the Hall of Justice by 2025 and starting construction on a new Justice Campus by 2028. This means currently incarcerated people could be relocated to Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail in the meantime, a solution staunchly opposed by many at Friday’s hearing. 

Santa Rita Jail is notorious for human rights abuses and at the center of several recent lawsuits surrounding inmate deaths, pregnancy miscarriages and sleep deprivation.

“This is a horrible plan because it separates people from their families and legal counsel and support groups,” Sheriff Vicki Hennessy said. “Sending some of our folks to Santa Rita is frightening, and the latest reports about the suicides and the deaths there, the lack of programming, the lack of support there — it is just frightening to think that we would send people to that facility.”

Hennessy recommended that San Francisco invest in mental health and substance abuse treatment services as well as supportive housing. Her sentiments echoed those of Haney and other supervisors who said the city should focus on alternatives to incarceration that address the racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system.

“Forty-five percent of those held (at 850 Bryant) are African American. Almost 40% are unhoused. Over 30% are in need of mental health care. Twenty-five percent are under 25, and over 90% are being held pre-trial,” Haney said. “These statistics should shock our moral conscience.”

The Board of Supervisors rejected a proposal to build a new jail in place of the Hall of Justice in 2015, and instead compelled the city to implement programs that would lower its overall population behind bars. Some of these programs, highlighted in a letter to the Board published in July by the No New Jail Coalition, could include supportive housing, mental health and substance use services, decriminalization of quality of life charges, pretrial process reforms and an increase in hospital treatment beds. 

“The longer we wait to plan for an effective, smart and safe San Francisco solution to closing this facility, the more constrained our decisions and options are, and the longer we place people in grave danger in this facility,” Haney said. “The time for a plan is now.”