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A proposal to close a San Francisco county jail and release 350 inmates has the conditional support of District Attorney Terence Hallinan, although he warned the move could pose public safety problems. “If he closes the jail, then obviously it’s a hazard,” Hallinan said of Mayor Willie Brown’s plan to shut down County Jail 7 at San Bruno. “You’re talking about 350 people who are criminals, no matter how carefully you screen them.” Brown made the proposal during a closed-door meeting Wednesday with Hallinan, Sheriff Mike Hennessey and Superior Court Presiding Judge Donna Hitchens. The four met to discuss ways to help meet the city’s projected $200 million budget deficit. Hitchens, Hennessey and the mayor met again Thursday to discuss the ramifications of releasing inmates who had not finished their time. Should the city close the jail, Hallinan suggests establishing a screening committee composed of representatives from his office, the public defender, adult probation and the sheriff’s department to look at each inmate eligible for release. “If you’re releasing people from jail not because they merit being released, but because you’re trying to make a budget savings, then you’re in a dangerous area,” he said. “You have to be tentative and careful about this.” Hennessey, who supports the closing of the jail, said the mayor told him he had to cut $5 million from his $96 million budget because of the revenue shortfall. “This [jail closing] would be the most responsible way to do it,” the sheriff said, “and it would not adversely impact public safety.” Not all the 350 releases would come from the one jail, Hennessey said, but sheriff’s deputies would review the population at the county’s six jail facilities to determine who is most suitable for early release. Hennessey said of the city’s 2,100 total inmate population, nearly half, or 990, are in jail for drug-related crimes. He said there are no plans to release people convicted of or charged with violent crimes such as assault, attempted murder, domestic violence or sex offenses, or inmates with mental illness or those with restraining orders against them. “You have to provide for a new program for people who would normally be in custody,” Hennessey said. “It would be an alternative to jail.” While Hallinan favors jail alternatives such as diversion programs providing counseling or drug rehabilitation, he said criminal histories must also be considered. “A guy may have a drug possession charge, but if you look at him 10 years ago, he might have had a murder or a gun charge,” he said. “You have to individually look at each person.” Although he said he is confident that early release of some inmates will not imperil public safety, Hennessey said there was no guarantee that all of them would make their next court date or wouldn’t re-offend. “We’re going to be releasing people who are going to be getting out anyway in a few months,” the sheriff said. PJ Hitchens said the prospect of early releases causes her some concern. “I hope there are alternatives that are reasonable and meet the needs of the justice system.”

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