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."



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