Our streets are filthy. I cannot recall a time when there has been so much trash on our roads. Traveling extensively for work I am amazed how other thoroughfares in the state and country are so clean, in contrast to Santa Clara County. This blight is highly visible, and seems worse than ever with no realistic solution in sight.
Many residents share their desire for clean roads with their governmental representatives, but removing litter never seems to be a priority. It is seen as a “first world problem,” or a mere quality of life issue. While it is certainly not life threatening, it can be demoralizing, and can lead to lost pride in our community.
Some would advocate using volunteers as a solution. I believe volunteerism can achieve specific goals. In San Jose, I championed allowing volunteers to help our parks and libraries, against opposition from some public employee unions. The results were fantastic.
Our Municipal Rose Garden transformed from a disgrace to the number one rose garden in the country. Library volunteers assist in re-shelving books, which enable libraries to extend their hours without the standard increase in spending (2014 city auditor report).
As bullish as I am on volunteers, I don’t believe they can be responsible for cleaning our roads countywide. We need something permanent and ongoing. Thus, I propose expanding the use of county jail inmates and alternative sentencing to clean our roadways of litter, weeds, and graffiti.
I believe county inmates should devote their days to improving our community, under supervision of county personnel. It would not only clear our blighted roadways, but would also provide inmates with important life skills, responsibility, civic engagement and a sense of purpose that could reduce recidivism once inmates return to the general population.
There are two primary obstacles to this solution: liability and funding. While it is highly unlikely that inmates dressed in bright orange vests would be hit by a passing vehicle, governments must be prepared for even the rarest of occurrences.
Instead of using Santa Clara County tax dollars for programs outside of the county’s primary responsibilities, I think we should dedicate precious funds to pay for the necessary liability insurance, and for staff to supervise inmates in a professional and safe manner.
This is not a new idea, but its use is limited. What I am proposing is vastly expanding the use of the approximately 3,000 county jail inmates to clean public areas year round.
Critics may claim that making inmates clean the roads will take work away from existing government employees. Nonsense. There is no shortage of dirty roadways in our area, and effective solutions will require an “all hands on deck” approach.
Others may view picking up litter as cruel and unusual punishment. My short answer to that is: rubbish (pun intended). Inmates are underutilized resources within county government, and we should deploy them in a productive capacity immediately.
CalTrans alone spent $67.5 million to pick up litter in 2016, which does not include the cost to counties and cities. Not utilizing inmates to clean roadways is wasting a valuable resource.
I believe this program should roll out first with county expressways such as Almaden, Lawrence, and San Tomas, in addition to the Burbank and Cambrian county pockets. Keeping these areas free of litter should bring with it an elevated sense of pride in the community as a whole, and an increased positive engagement of our inmate population as well.
Doing things differently in county government can bring about results that are favorable to all, and demonstrate a commitment to residents.
Pierluigi Oliverio served 10 years on the San Jose City Council and is a candidate for Santa Clara County Supervisor in District 4. He wrote this for The Mercury News.