Elderly, Sick, and in Jail

A week before San Francisco issued its shelter-in-place order on March 17, the Public Defender’s Office announced that it would seek the immediate release of people being held pretrial in county jails due to concerns around COVID-19 transmission. 

Barry (whose name has been changed to protect his privacy) had been in jail at 850 Bryant Street for a month awaiting trial. As evidenced by the current situation at San Quentin, prisons and jails across the country were quickly emerging as viral hotspots and threatening the lives of detainees. Barry was prioritized for release due to his heightened risk of contracting the virus. In his 70s, he has a chronic illness and experiences debilitating back pain.

At the discretion of the Superior Court, he was required to work with the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project (SF Pretrial) once released. A community-based non-profit that contracts with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney, and Superior Courts, SF Pretrial has been a trusted provider of diversion programs, case management, and alternatives to incarceration for 44 years. The organization currently supervises over 1,300 clients, many of whom require rehabilitative treatment and supportive services while on pretrial release. In cases like Barry’s, SF Pretrial is responsible for developing and implementing a re-entry plan, connecting clients with needed services, and reporting back to the judge about clients’ ongoing progress.  

Upon his release, Barry was not allowed to return home due to a legal order and was at risk of homelessness, so SF Pretrial staff immediately turned their attention to securing housing for Barry. When he was first escorted from jail to the organization’s office, Barry was combative and traumatized. Staff acknowledged his distress, used de-escalation practices, and engaged him with compassion and dignity.

After helping to calm Barry and address his concerns, staff provided food and hygiene products, built a treatment plan, and identified an available single-room occupancy (SRO) unit to make sure he didn’t end up on the street. After the Public Defender’s Office retrieved his identification, back brace, and other possessions, SF Pretrial case managers escorted Barry to the SRO and helped acclimate him to his new space—all within a few hours of his release from jail. 

Photo: Lea Suzuki / San Francisco Chronicle

Barry is just one of the many people served by SF Pretrial during COVID-19. Since the shelter-in-place order came into effect, the organization has operated 24/7, facilitating more than 800 releases from custody. Nearly 500 of those clients have intensive needs, which can be related to substance use, behavioral health issues and, perhaps most importantly, lack of housing. 

While shelter and housing shortages represent an ongoing area of need in San Francisco, the pandemic has made these issues all the more dire. Emergency relief grants from Tipping Point in March and May gave SF Pretrial the flexibility to make longer-term placements in SROs as an alternative to living on our streets, which has greatly improved SF Pretrial’s ability to support and stabilize its most disadvantaged clients. The grants also covered the costs associated with the increased demand for hygiene materials, food, and clothing.

SF Pretrial’s ability to stabilize Barry in the short term with resources and housing improved the court’s confidence in him. The judge’s original protective order was lifted and six weeks later Barry was able to return to his home to await the full resolution of his case. The judge also reduced his charges.

Releasing people charged with crimes into the support of pretrial services is proven to benefit both the individual and the community. In June, after court hearings had recommenced at San Francisco’s Hall of Justice, 92% of SF Pretrial’s clients appeared for their court dates. And, despite the fact that more people have been released during shelter in place, SF Pretrial’s rates of safety and appearance have been equal to rates prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“We owe a deep debt of gratitude to Tipping Point for supporting our agency when our only option was sending clients back to the streets and into a relentless cycle of poverty and higher risk of coronavirus exposure,” said SF Pretrial CEO David Mauroff. “The tireless work of our staff to break that cycle by providing housing through this funding builds trust with clients as they are released from jail at one of the most vulnerable points in their lives. This has significantly enhanced our impact as we navigate a new reality of more limited resources during a public health crisis.”

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