One year ago, when the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office released Jessica St. Louis from Santa Rita Jail at 1:30 in the morning, her prospects were bleak. Alone in the darkness, the 26-year-old faced a 40-minute walk, along desolate roads, past about a dozen vacant lots, to the Dublin-Pleasanton BART station. And then once at the station, she would have to wait three hours for the trains to start running.
She never made it to a train. She was found dead at 5:30 a.m., July 28, 2018, of an opioid overdose, just outside the BART station.
Jessica St. Louis’ death was preventable. Releasing people in the dead of night without access to transportation — or a working cellphone — is cruel and unnecessary treatment. That’s why I introduced legislation last fall, Senate Bill 42, the Getting Home Safe Act, to end this deplorable practice.
SB 42 would require jails throughout California to provide people who are eligible for release during evening and nighttime hours with the option of remaining in a safe waiting area — not behind bars — until morning. Women are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of late-night releases, including exploitation by traffickers.
If a person in custody is eligible for release in the middle of the night and chooses to leave, SB 42 also would require jails to ensure that the person can call family and friends to arrange a ride home by providing free phone calls or the ability to charge their cellphones.
Additionally, SB 42 mandates that jails arrange for free transportation to a drug or alcohol rehab program, when feasible, and provide people released with three days’ supply of necessary medication.
In 2014, California enacted SB 833, allowing sheriff’s offices to voluntarily establish release procedures similar to what SB 42 would require, but, unfortunately, few chose to do so. As a result, jails up and down the state each year continue to release thousands of people unsafely at night.
Opponents of SB 42, which include sheriffs and rural counties, have contended that the Getting Home Safe Act would be too expensive to implement and that providing people with safe waiting areas and access to cellphone charging and free phone calls would be too burdensome.
But there is an easy solution for sheriffs and rural communities worried about costs: process release paperwork more quickly so that people can be freed during the day instead of having to wait until after hours when the options for getting home safe are slim.
SB 42 has widespread support, not only from BART but also from many Bay Area criminal justice reform groups, including The Young Women’s Freedom Center, which is co-sponsoring the bill; the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights; Oakland Privacy; and Root & Rebound.
The Getting Home Safe Act garnered bipartisan support in the state Senate, winning approval in May on a 35-3 vote. The bill is now in the Assembly and will be heard in late August by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. If it wins approval there, then it will go to the full Assembly for consideration, likely in early September. If all goes well, SB 42 will head to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk in mid-September.
SB 42 is particularly important in counties like Alameda. As journalist Scott Morris noted in a May 7 East Bay Express cover story, “The Most Dangerous Place in Alameda County,” Santa Rita has become one of the deadliest large jails in California in recent years. Santa Rita has been plagued by some alarming conditions: 35 people died there from 2014 until May of this year.
Incarcerated people deserve safer treatment, not only when they’re behind bars, but when they’re released.
SB 42 will go a long way toward ensuring that when Santa Rita and other California jails release people, they’ll have a much better chance of getting home safe.
State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, represents the 9th Senate District, which runs from Rodeo to San Leandro. She is also chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee and the Public Safety Budget Committee.