Inmate decline at S.F. Jail could be tied to crime-lab scandal 

San Francisco’s inmate population has declined drastically in the past few months, in part due to the crime-lab crisis that resulted in more than 700 cases being dropped and some inmates being released from jail.

A city controller report this week showed San Francisco’s daily average jail population dropped from 2,002 in February to 1,680 in April.

There are many factors contributing to the decline, said San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessey, but the timing is curious since it happened at the same time the crime lab was shut down.

On March 9, police closed the lab after former technician Deborah Madden admitted to taking trace amounts of cocaine from evidence samples. A critical, independent audit of the facility released later said it’s understaffed, overworked and has lax security.

Since then, more than 700 drug cases have been dropped. But, the district attorney could not say how many inmates were released from jail as a result of the scandal.

"I think it’s more than coincidence that the drop took place the same time the drug lab got shut down," Hennessey said. "It could be that police are bringing in fewer drug cases now because they know they can only analyze so many."

The declining inmate population has translated into a monetary savings for San Francisco County, which recently closed down a jail, Hennessey said. On April 2, the county shut down Jail No. 6, which held 300 inmates at its San Bruno location, according to the Sheriff’s Department. That saved the county $7 million and reduced overtime costs at the jail by 60 percent, Hennessey said.

The District Attorney’s Office said the declining inmate population could partially be linked to the lab closure, but added that there are other reasons for the trend.

One is that San Francisco is sending more people to state prison, said Erica Derryck, spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office.

"Our state prison commitments have increased significantly," Derryck said. "Roughly twice as many people were sentenced to state prison in 2009 compared to 2003 for cases out of San Francisco."

Hennessey isn’t sure whether the inmate population would continue to decline. Legislation to shift a portion of the state prison population into county jails is moving through the Legislature, he said. The proposal states that anyone sentenced to state prison for three years or less would do their time in a county jail.

If that passes, all county jail populations will skyrocket, Hennessey said.

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Erin Sherbert

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