Berkeley City Council opposes budget increase for Santa Rita Jail

Berkeley City Council
Ireland Wagner/File

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In a unanimous vote, Berkeley City Council members opposed the Alameda County sheriff’s request of an $85 million annual budget increase at a special meeting Tuesday.

In March, the sheriff made a request to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors for $255 million over the course of the next three fiscal years. The proposal would fund Alameda County Behavioral Health staffing at Santa Rita Jail and was preliminarily approved by supervisors in May.

Led by Councilmember Cheryl Davila, the City Council asked county supervisors in April to delay decision-making in order to collect more information about how the funds would be spent and whether those plans would meet the mental health needs of inmates.

In a City Council agenda item from April, Davila urged for continued divestment from jails, prisons and detention centers and for county resources to be directed to cities and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Davila and City Councilmember Susan Wengraf renewed the charge for formal opposition in hope of impacting a final vote that will take place next week. During the meeting, Councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani and Ben Bartlett co-sponsored the action.

“When the sheriff came forward with the item in April, the world was a different place than it is now,” Wengraf said during the meeting. “There’s been an outcry about inequity in policing and injustice in our prison system, and I think it’s really important that the city of Berkeley take a strong stand of opposing the allocation of this money for this purpose.”

All who provided public comment on the item voiced support for the City Council’s decision; some mentioned the deaths of inmates that have occurred at the facility over the past five years.

The move to oppose the county’s tentative funding allocation came after discussion on developing the city’s budget for fiscal year 2021. Budget conversations focused on the Berkeley Police Department’s allotment, which currently composes 43% of next year’s tentative budget.

Several council members and meeting attendees expressed desire to see deeper cuts to policing and more spending on community service programs with added demands due to COVID-19.

“Equal sacrifice layered on unequal needs does not produce equity,” said City Councilmember Sophie Hahn at the meeting. “I’m really concerned about the idea that we would just accept across-the-board cuts from some departments and lesser cuts from others without doing that deeper analysis.”

Contact Victoria Stafford at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @VictoriaStaffrd.