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A Capital Crime?

Becky O’Malley, executive editor
Tuesday May 20, 2003

The death of Berkeley resident Kevin Freeman in Santa Rita Jail raises a number of questions which public agencies who had him in custody before his death must answer. 

The first questions are for Alameda County, which runs Santa Rita. The most obvious one, of course, is why Freeman, charged only with public drunkenness, was assigned to the same cell as a man who was alleged to have attacked a stranger with a knife. Is it the jail’s policy to house people charged with violent crimes with non-violent offenders, or was a mistake made? If it was a mistake, how did it happen? Was one or the other of the cell mates mischaracterized, and if so, by whom? What are the qualifications of those who evaluate the psychological state of inmates before placing them in cells? 

Then there are the questions for City of Berkeley authorities. Berkeley Police officers expressed shock at Freeman’s apparent murder, but how did he end up in jail in the first place? Alcoholism, after all, is addiction, though to a legal drug. Most experts call it a disease. So why is the City of Berkeley still locking people up in the county jail for being alcoholics? 

Do we jail middle-class alcoholics with a support network of friends and family, or is jail reserved for the poor? There was a drunken brawl in front of a fraternity house a week or so ago. Any U.C. students locked up in Santa Rita for being drunk in public in that situation? 

And how much does it cost to jail an alcoholic for 30 days anyway? When you consider the salaries of prison guards, police officers and judges, not to mention the cost of building jails, it’s bound to add up to a pretty penny. Could the judge who sentenced Kevin Freeman to 30 days in Santa Rita have required the city to spend the same amount of money on medical detoxification for him instead? 

In the wake of Freeman’s death, social service agencies have once again called for the establishment of a local detox center. State Proposition 36 mandated a treatment option for people addicted to illegal drugs, but it doesn’t cover victims of alcohol, the heavily advertised legal drug. 

There is a widespread public perception that it’s a good idea to get people like Kevin off the street and out of sight by any means necessary. Gavin Newsom, a rich kid who has probably seen friends drunk in public, is making a run for mayor in San Francisco on the backs of unfortunates who can’t lick their alcoholism and other problems. His allies in the San Francisco hotel industry have even floated a billboard campaign against giving money to panhandlers. Their Care not Cash proposal, passed by San Francisco voters but recently overturned by a judge, would substitute shelter vouchers for food and rent money, with the excuse that sometimes checks are spent on alcohol. It takes more than a bed for the night to beat alcohol addiction, unfortunately. 

We tried a voucher program here in Berkeley a few years ago, probably after Kevin Freeman was already addicted, already on the street. It didn’t work, for him or for anyone else in his condition, and it won’t work in San Francisco either. 

Sick people like Kevin need treatment, not punishment. And even if punishment is all we offer them in Berkeley, it’s particularly outrageous that the criminal negligence of the management of Santa Rita has turned Kevin Freeman’s misdemeanor drunkenness into a death penalty crime. 

— Becky O’Malley, executive editor