The San Diego City Council, contending that the need for well-run, alternative sentencing facilities for criminals outweighs community opposition to one of the programs, Tuesday agreed to allow a prison furlough program to open in Barrio Logan.
The 6-3 vote made the Pacific Furlough Facility the first program of its kind to win a “conditional use permit” from the city and allows it to move from its current site in the 3000 block of National Avenue to larger quarters in the 2700 block of Boston Avenue.
In gaining the victory, owners of the facility, who include former San Diego Charger Ernie Wright, agreed to drop plans to open a parking lot adjacent to a planned elderly housing project two blocks from the furlough house. They also lost a bid to accept convicts who have committed serious crimes such as assault, battery, assault with a deadly weapon and willful cruelty to a child.
The council majority approved the move despite expressing sympathy for the facility’s new neighbors, who said that they feared for their safety and already are home to a disproportionate share of residential care facilities for the elderly, mentally ill, mentally retarded and battered women.
“I don’t think we are serving anybody by taking what is one of the best operations and not allowing them to operate,” said Councilman Ron Roberts, who sided with Mayor Maureen O’Connor and council members Abbe Wolfsheimer, Wes Pratt, Bruce Henderson and Judy McCarty in approving the permit.
The vote was a defeat for Councilman Bob Filner, who represents Barrio Logan and opposed the permit despite acknowledging that the Pacific Furlough Facility is among the most reputable of the 13 prison furlough programs believed to be operating in the city.
The council voted, 5-4, against Filner’s proposal to deny the permit before voting to allow it. Obviously upset by the decisions, Filner told the council that it was “punishing a neighborhood” and said that “the vote that took place would not take place (if the facility were) in any other neighborhood in this city.”
In agreeing to grant the permit, the council also vowed to quickly haul in other facilities without city authorization to operate and force them to close if they do not agree to similar conditions. The city has cited 13 such facilities for violating zoning regulations, but Pacific is the first to attempt to rectify the problem by agreeing to certain conditions in order to acquire the special permit.
Council members also instructed City Atty. John Witt to inform the judges who refer criminals to the furlough houses which have city authority to operate.
Mainly Nonviolent Criminals
Home to about 75 convicts who pay $17.50 a day for the right to serve their sentences outside county jails, the facility accepts primarily nonviolent offenders who are watched by private security guards 24 hours a day. They may travel to and from jobs and receive family visits on weekends, but otherwise are confined to the facility.
Of the 375 people who have served time there for 51 crimes, 114 were convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs; 29 were convicted of being under the influence of drugs and 28 were sentenced for possessing drugs. However, seven others had been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, 11 committed a “lewd or lascivious act” with a child under the age of 14, three committed robbery and one was convicted of kidnaping.
Caught in what Councilman Wes Pratt called a “moral dilemma,” the council acknowledged the community’s concerns about safety and the large number of residential facilities in Southeast San Diego and Barrio Logan. According to the city’s Planning Department, 37% of such facilities are in Southeast San Diego.
Wright and lobbyist Michel Anderson sought to allay community fears by telling council members that there have been no incidents since the facility opened in June, 1987. A neighbor of the current facility testified that its guards and residents rescued her husband from a fire.