Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Future of new jail in doubt


The future of a new North County jail grew foggier yesterday after Sheriff Bill Brown told the Board of Supervisors the state would not support a county proposal to build a secure reentry facility next to the jail.
Without the reentry facility, the county could lose $56.2 million in grant funding that was conditionally awarded to the county through state Assembly Bill 900, the Public Safety and Offender Rehabilitation Services Act of 2007.

A condition of receiving this money is that the county utilizes a reentry facility, which Brown had hoped could be built next to the new jail and would house hundreds of state prison inmates from Santa Barbara County. The reentry facility would have been owned by the state, but operated by the county.
However, Brown said he was notified on Aug. 12 that the state determined such an arrangement wasn’t legally defensible, and in order to receive the grant the county would have to change its plans.
The sheriff said the state’s decision was unsettling since jail overcrowding remains a chronic problem in the county. He said 22 inmates slept on the floor Monday night, and last week a court order mandated the early release of 55 inmates who had served a fraction of their sentences.
“We definitely have to do something to solve this problem. It’s not getting better it’s getting worse,” he told the board. “It’s a disservice to this community. It degrades the criminal justice system, it ultimately makes this county a less safe place to live.”
As Brown finished breaking the bad news, he had some potentially good news as well. He told the board the county could retain the grant funds if the board chooses to partner with San Luis Obispo and San Benito Counties on a reentry facility that would be built in Paso Robles.
Brown said roughly 250 beds in the proposed 500-bed facility would be reserved for prison inmates who would be released into Santa Barbara County. The only fiscal obligation, he said, would be transporting those inmates to Santa Barbara County, which is estimated to cost $70,000 per year.
While Brown called the multi-county partnership a “fortuitous opportunity,” it would require the board to make some tough decisions fast.
Brown said the grant money could be stripped if the board doesn’t make a decision on the reentry facility partnership by Sept. 9. On top of that, the board must commit to building its own jail by that time. And while the $56.2 million will pay for a significant portion of the jail, the remaining $20 million or so isn’t a settling sum for the board to attempt to find, since county officials have repeatedly said they’re broke.
A number of possible revenue streams were briefly discussed at yesterday’s meeting, including a sales tax increase, or a special tax on county oil production, which has previously been contemplated by the county.
The board did vote unanimously yesterday to provide a site assurance resolution to the state, informing them the county is in control of a parcel of land that it intends to build a jail on.
Brown said he was first told by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in July that the county would not be allowed to operate the reentry facility. He said an alternative legal opinion drafted by County Counsel was sent to the state with a different conclusion. But the state clung to its initial conclusion.
Brown said he was somewhat puzzled by the CDCR’s decision since he had made his intentions perfectly clear for more than a year and half that the county intended to operate the reentry facility.
In a letter to CDCR, Brown points out that the grant funding was conditionally issued to the county based in part on his clear-stated proposal to operate the facility.
“Our position and intent to operate the reentry facility, until recently, was not considered problematic to CDCR,” Brown wrote.
CDCR Press Secretary Seth Unger admitted initial discussions with several counties occurred and the prospect of those counties operating the reentry facilities was at one time considered an option.
However, he said when it became clear in July this wouldn’t be possible and the involved counties were informed. He said the state is trying to work with San Luis Obispo, San Benito and Santa Barbara Counties on a multi-county plan.
“Now we’re trying to work with [these counties] to ensure this facility is able to be used by as many inmates as possible and this is a solution that would be beneficial to all parties,” Unger said.
Unger said CDCR legal counsel cited a number of problems involved with Santa Barbara County operating a state facility, including a clause in the State Civil Services Act in the California Constitution, which he said says state employees, should fill traditional state roles in a state run facility. He said AB 900 does not provide a clear exception to this requirement.
Brown said there are a number of reasons why he would be uneasy with the state operating a facility on the same plot of land as the county jail. He said the main reason would be to ensure the facility is used as a reentry facility and doesn’t turn into a state prison.
“We felt that by us being in control of the facility there would be a better chance of that happening,” he said.
Brown said he wanted to oversee the facility to ensure the roughly 800 to 1,000 state prison inmates who are discharged into Santa Barbara County each year with little or no training on how to reorient themselves in society, would receive the training they needed.
He said the need for such training is essential to solve jail overcrowding — a problem he insists the county cannot build itself out of.
To prove that point, Brown cited statistics that indicate 70 percent of those state prison inmates dropped off at various bus stops throughout the county each year, end up back in jail within three years. This is proof, he says, of the dire need for a year or so worth of reentry training prior to a prisoner’s release.
Regardless of whether that happens here or in Paso Robles, Brown just hopes it comes to fruition sometime soon.
But in the meantime, county prisoners are being released early. In some cases, very early.
Brown said it’s not unusual for a prisoner serving a 60-day jail sentence to be released serving only 12 days. He said a prisoner is able to get one third of a sentence reduced for working and good behavior. Then, since the jail is overcrowded, that same prisoner can automatically be released seven days early. If the jail reaches its population cap, 21 additional days can be chopped from a sentence, which leaves many prisoners behind bars for a fraction of their sentences.
“It happens all the time,” Brown said. “It’s just overflowing.”
The board is scheduled to discuss the matter again on Sept. 2, at which time Brown said he hopes some consensus will be reached about partnering with the other counties on the reentry facility.


Turtle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Turtle said...

Wonderful - soon the gangs will be able to roam the streets with impunity - one step closer to Aztlan.