Recognizing that California counties were fast running out of space to
lock up offenders, state lawmakers authorized $1.2 billion for jail construction
Since then, demand for county jail space has spiked due to a 2011 California law that redirected lower-level offenders to counties rather than state prisons.
But six years after the state approved $1.2 billion for jails, not a single county has finished construction -- and only five have started building new cells.
State and county budget woes during the recession are partly to blame. The state initially struggled to sell bonds, while counties could not scrape together enough matching construction funds or devote more money for workers to operate expanded jails.
County officials, however, also cited a maze of bureaucratic state hurdles that proved too difficult to navigate.
"The red tape is unbelievable," said Manuel Perez, Madera County's corrections director. "It's not an easy process."
County sheriffs say they need more jail beds after having released inmates 153,000 times statewide in 2012 because they didn't have enough space, a 28 percent increase over the year before, state figures show.
Madera is one of the few counties that figured out how to build new jail space using state funds. It received a $30 million award in 2009, started construction two years later, and expects to finish its 144-bed expansion in September.
State officials provided the counties with an 80-page document explaining the requirements, such as verifying property ownership, revenue sources and design plans.
One other project funded under the law -- in Calaveras County -- is expected to be completed this year. Projects in bigger counties, such as Orange and Los Angeles, aren't expected to be done for at least five years.
Sacramento County had an application denied but plans to reapply for similar funds.
Curtis Hill, acting executive officer of the Board of State and Community Corrections, which is responsible for the projects, doesn't dispute the complaints about construction delays. He previously worked on a jail project in San Benito County, where he was sheriff.
"These projects are so difficult," Hill said. "There are so many state agencies involved."
Hill said he is trying to streamline the process, in part by making the Board of State and Community Corrections help counties better navigate the state's requirements.
The pressure for jail space increased two years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce prison overcrowding associated with substandard health care. California has reduced its prison population by about 25,000, primarily by sentencing lower-level offenders to jail instead of prison.
The state must reduce the prison population by about another 8,000 inmates by the end of the year. Some of them could land in county jails under a plan Gov. Jerry Brown proposed this week to spend $315 million to house inmates elsewhere.
While nearly all of the funding for the 2007 jail construction bill has been earmarked, the state has authorized another $500 million to build local correctional facilities, on top of $1.2 billion already approved. Hill said he wants to make sure that funding is handled more smoothly than the previous round.
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