News Column

$1.2 Billion for New Jails; None Built

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Recognizing that California counties were fast running out of space to lock up offenders, state lawmakers authorized $1.2 billion for jail construction in 2007.

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.

The first round of funding under the 2007 bill was delayed because the regulations prioritized counties that agreed to create halfway houses to help inmates reintegrate into society. Thirteen counties initially committed to building halfway houses but ran into so much community opposition that they had to rescind their applications for state funding, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.

Another major problem was the state's reliance on lease-revenue bonds, a borrowing method that avoids the political pitfall of asking voters to pay for jail construction but adds layers of state review that sheriffs blame for tying up funds.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Public Works Board, the Department of Finance and the Board of State and Community Corrections all have a say in the projects, along with counties that each have different processes for construction projects, Hill said.

Six projects -- almost a third of all those selected -- remain in "conditional" status because they have not met all of the state's requirements. As a result, they don't have estimated completion dates.

Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, gives the state's efforts mixed reviews. The Prison Law Office represents inmates in the federal lawsuit against the state and has filed two lawsuits alleging similar poor conditions in jails in Riverside and Fresno counties.

He's opposed to adding jail beds to the overall total. Fewer people need to be held in jails prior to trial and more need to be sentenced in ways that don't involve incarceration, such as GPS monitoring, he said.

On the other hand, some improvements are needed at county jails, he said. "Some of the jails are old and antiquated and need to be closed."

Specter also supports the focus of the latest jail construction funds: to provide more mental health and rehabilitation services.

Addressing county complaints, state officials in 2011 revamped procedures for awarding jail construction funds. Rather than prioritize counties that created halfway houses, they chose to fund counties that had sent the most criminals to prison, recognizing that the same counties were also likeliest to need more jail space after the state began redirecting inmates their way in 2011.

San Mateo County lost its award when it couldn't locate a re-entry facility next to its jail. The county, which ranked 12th in the state for prisoners, did not send enough inmates to prison to qualify for funding under the new requirements.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has tried unsuccessfully to get the Legislature to revise the selection criteria so his county can get some of the funding.

He argues that money should go to counties that are ready to build, such as San Mateo. "The point is to build jails to house inmates and not one jail has been built," the senator said. "We keep tying their hands."

Sacramento County, which ranked seventh in the state for sending offenders to prison, did not receive an award under the new guidelines. The awards were given by county size, and Sacramento finished behind Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange counties in the large-county category.

Curtis Hill of the Board of State and Community Corrections said some smaller counties have greater needs.

He will recommend that most of the $80 million remaining in the 2007 program -- the result of San Joaquin County returning its award -- go to Monterey County, which previously received a partial award for its planned $80 million project.


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