Archive » August 2, 2012
Milestone in the march for new jail
By Jeremy Foster, Staff Writer
The goal of building a new North County jail has, over the years, hit speed bump after speed bump. But thanks to a $20 million grant from the state on July 26, Santa Barbara County has been given the momentum to speed ahead – with little cost to the county.
In January, sheriff Bill Brown applied for an $80 million grant from the Board of State and Community Corrections. Santa Barbara County was among 11 counties vying for a share in $602 million in funding from the state under AB 900, which passed in 2008 to reduce overcrowding in jails.
In March, the Sheriff’s Department received $60 million. The final $80 million amount is the maximum possible under the guidelines for medium-sized counties. The next step is for the county Debt Advisory Committee to recommend what kind of matching funds should be put up by the county Board of Supervisors, which must approve the jail proposal.
The windfall from the state allows the county to build a bigger and better jail and pay only 10% of the cost of construction. The less costly option positions the county to shoulder hundreds of lower-level prisoners who, because of state realignment, are being sentenced to jail instead of state prison.
Jail overcrowding has plagued the county jail system for nearly 30 years, and the Sheriff’s Department has been combating the problem for about 20 years.
Since 1986, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department has been under a court order to release jail inmates early because of overcrowding. Numerous Grand Jury reports have recommended that the county build a new North County jail. Since 2008, the Sherriff’s Department has released 5,500 inmates early from the Goleta jail. Approximately 289 of them committed another crime and have returned to jail.
In 2008, the Sheriff’s Department looked poised to finally nip the problem in the bud when the county received a $56 million award in 2008 under Phase I of the AB 900 Jail Construction Financing Program. But the economic downturn made finding the 25% in matching funds “too burdensome to achieve,” Brown told the board in December. Brown had tried to fill that gap at the polls in the form of Measure S, a half-cent sales tax increase for jail funds, but the measure was rejected by most voters.
To make matters worse, the state started shifting the problem of prison overcrowding to the local level – something Brown said he and his department staff never envisioned.
The Sheriff’s Department has dealt with the influx of state prisoners by providing alternatives to custody – such as electronic monitoring – for low-risk offenders awaiting trial. Early release and citations for low-level offenders have become more commonplace as the prison population houses inmates who are a greater threat to the general public.
“On Monday (July 30), there were 67 people in custody for murder or attempted murder,” Brown told the Journal. “I have staff members who started 25 years ago and dealt with, maybe, two or three people in custody on those charges. The type of inmate we incarcerate now is typically a lot more serious than what we’ve historically dealt with. We just don’t have white-collar criminals, petty thieves, repeat drunk drivers taking up any lengthy periods of time in our jails. We just don’t have the resources.”
The current jail’s “honor farm,” designed 30 years ago to house low-level offenders, now functions as a medium-security facility, Brown said. “Once the new jail is operational, we will repurpose that area and get it back to housing low-level offenders.”
Brown said prison staff is adequately trained to deal with the changes, but a new jail will alleviate the burden of dealing almost exclusively with high-risk offenders. “I’ll match them with custody staff anywhere,” he said. “But the physical facilities they’re working in are really not what they should be. The new facility will provide them with a new level of safety and security. The new jail will be designed and built to manage inmates in a much safer and a more efficient manner.”
The 138,385-square-foot, 376-bed jail will be built on the southwest corner of Black and Betteravia roads, and include a corrections treatment center with 16 mental health beds and 16 medical beds. Construction could begin in May 2015 and be completed in January 2018. The new project would cost $95.1 million, compared with $75.9 million for the previously proposed 304-bed jail.
The county must pay an estimated $9 million in construction costs and $17 million per year to operate the jail. Moreover, the state must sell lease revenue bonds for the project to move ahead and receive approval of each stage of the project from the Corrections Standards Authority. County CEO Chandra Wallar and Brown have devised a plan in which the county, which began last year, would make slowly ascending contributions from the general fund. This money will pay for operational costs, including 53 additional custody deputies and 28 support positions such as records, accounting, food services and maintenance.
The new grant required Brown to relinquish the $56-million grant the department had received toward jail construction, but Brown said he and his department “took a calculated risk in relinquishing our original grant for an award that would finally help us build not only a larger facility, but one that will provide inmates with the level of care so that they have the opportunity to be successful upon release.” email@example.com