Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Supes take big step towards new county jail


After more than two decades of talk from elected officials about the need for a new county jail, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors took action on Tuesday, giving Sheriff Bill Brown the green light to pursue millions in state funding for the project.
“I think it’s unquestionably the biggest step that’s been taken and in some respects it’s the only step that’s been taken by the Board of Supervisors in building a new jail,” Brown said. “I’m very, very pleased that the board took the action that they did. I think they took a major step in what has been a major odyssey.”

The unanimous vote from the board came a week after Brown’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Jail Overcrowding presented a report to the board that showed the problems with an over-taxed jail system go beyond forcing prisoners sleep on the floor; it is a detriment to public safety, the report said.
Brown emphasized this point, saying the lack of adequate space in the county jail system has “eroded” public safety and each day nothing is done, it continues to deteriorate.
“The reality is that the situation is worsening and we have to do something,” he said. “The longer we wait, the more difficult it gets to find a viable and affordable solution.”
If Tuesday was any indication, it seemed the board heard the sheriff’s message loud and clear.
“We really have no choice,” said Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone about building a new jail. “I think our No. 1 responsibility is public safety. It’s in the long term interest of the county to support the county jail.”
One of the main reasons for the erosion of public safety, according to the commission’s report, is the need to release inmates before their sentences are complete. In 2007, 1,784 inmates were released early.
Firestone had voiced skepticism in recent weeks over the cost of a new jail, but Brown noted that the county has been saying it did not have enough money for decades.
Each year the county puts off building a new jail, the costs increase by about 5 percent, or by roughly $4 million, the report says.
“You have to recognize that the timing is now,” Brown told the Daily Sound last week. “We have to be bold and creative.”
Brown has emphasized the creative approach, which he hopes will include about $56.6 million in state funding through Assembly Bill 900, the Public Safety and Offender Rehabilitation Services Act of 2007.
The board’s vote on Tuesday gives Brown the authority to apply for this money.
Brown called the potential partnership with the state a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. If the county receives the state funding, it could cover as much as 75 percent of the total cost for a new 300-bed jail, which is estimated at $80 million.
According the board’s agenda letter, this would leave the county with about $20 million in construction costs and about $13 million in annual maintenance costs.
In return, the state would be allowed to build a 500-bed secure reentry facility on the same parcel of land as the new jail. Brown said the 800 to 1,000 state prison inmates that are discharged into Santa Barbara County each year would utilize the reentry facility. Such a facility would also help reduce the 70 percent recidivism rate that currently exists at the state and county levels, Brown said.
But even with the state funding, which the Sheriff’s Department must apply for by March 18, the county has projected massive budget shortfalls in coming years that are expected to widen if the state’s anticipated $14 billion deficit becomes a reality.
At a Feb. 12 board meeting, Firestone told Brown the county is “broke,” and he hoped to see some creative ways to finance the jail.
Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno joined Firestone in stating his distrust for the state, especially during times of fiscal uncertainty. Centeno said he doesn’t want to see the state back out halfway through the project and stick the entirety of the costs on the county.
If that were to happen, or if the county does not end up receiving any AB 900 funding, which could be awarded as early as May, the county will still need to build a new jail – a fact that county CEO Mike Brown is well aware of.
“Even if this opportunity to partner with the state didn’t exist,” Brown said. “Even if all of these risks are there, we should probably build the jail anyhow and eat what we have to eat in various ways.”

No comments: