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Sonoma County eyes ambitious jail project

By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County intends to use $36 million recently allocated to it by the state and an additional $24 million it is seeking from Sacramento to build a new 160-bed detention and probation facility near the main county jail in Santa Rosa.

Sonoma County Jail inmatesThe facility would be the first of its kind in California, combining locked, minimum security housing for offenders transitioning out of jail and halfway house-type lodging for those under an alternative sentence or on probation who the county says would otherwise be at high risk to re-offend.

The plan would result in a hefty, ongoing financial commitment for the county.

It comes as national crime rates are on a historic downward trend and two years into a shift that has given counties responsibility for felons who once would have been state inmates and parolees.

Sonoma County’s jail system has absorbed the influx without hitting its maximum capacity. On Thursday, the jail population was at 1,156, out of total of 1,476 beds. County projections last year showed little increase in the system’s projected short-term need, estimated at 1,241 beds through 2018.

But law enforcement officials said that slight rise is due only to intensive county efforts to divert low-risk offenders out of jail and keep criminals from cycling back through the justice system.

They’ve advocated for the new corrections facility as another tool to reduce crime, ease the burden on courts and help avoid the specter of jail overcrowding. It would produce long-term savings, they contend, pointing to studies that six years ago pegged the cost of doubling the capacity of the county jail system at up to $552 million.

Sheriff Steve Freitas used an industry buzzword to extol the benefits of an early-intervention approach, calling the proposed facility “criminal justice upstream programming on steroids.”

“If we can be successful with this, we can save money in the long term,” he said.

The catch is the additional cost to operate a new facility. In today’s dollars it would cost $9.6 million a year. By 2018, when the so-called Community Corrections Center is expected to open, it could be an estimated $11.5 million, according to the county.

“It’s a lot of money,” Freitas acknowledged.

For San Joaquin County officials, the annual operating expense tied to their proposed 1,250-bed jail project was so high, up to $60 million, they turned down the state’s $80 million award and went back to the drawing board.

“There was no way we could afford that much money per year,” said Ken Vogel, chairman of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors.

Sonoma County supervisors will be be faced with their own cost calculation again this week, when county administrators are set to ask for approval to apply for the second sum of $24 million needed to complete the project. The overall cost, just under $67 million, includes a 10 percent match from the county.

The proposal, though downsized considerably since it was first raised six years ago, could rekindle the simmering debate about the share of county funding dedicated to public safety and criminal justice programs.

Current spending by the Sheriff’s Office and Probation Department account for a quarter of the approximately $400 million general fund, the county’s main source of discretionary money, supporting mainly public safety, criminal justice and administrative departments.

Other services, such as road upkeep, parks and land-use planning receive significantly less to almost nothing from the General Fund.

So far, advocates for those government services haven’t criticized the corrections plan.

But Vogel, the San Joaquin County supervisor, said competing needs in his county, including funding for roads, a zoo, parks and a county hospital in need of a seismic upgrade, factored in the debate to forgo the state funding in favor of a different jail plan.

“We’ve cut 875 positions” through and following the recession, he said. “We’ve drawn a lot on reserves and capital project accounts … All these different things are competing for this (county funding).”

The jail construction money is part of the state’s realignment in criminal justice program, one of its approaches to deal with prison overcrowding.

After San Joaquin took a pass on its $80 million, the sum was freed up for Sonoma and Monterey County, which was allocated $44 million. The related legislation was co-authored by state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, whose district includes part of Sonoma County.

When conceived, Sonoma County’s project was a 350-bed, $108 million corrections center with an annual operating cost of $16.2 million.

The county application last year envisioned the smaller 160-bed project, with a construction cost of $52 million. Subsequent revisions that would allow the facility to be converted for minimum-security housing or unlocked supervision resulted in the current higher cost, said Jose Obregon, the county’s General Services director.

The closest example to the county’s proposal is a facility local officials toured several years ago in Washington County, Ore., just west of Portland.

Plans for the new center using half the beds for detention and half for unsecured housing. The Sheriff’s Office would run the 85,000-square-foot, two-story building, partnering with the Probation Department and nonprofit program providers.

The clientele primarily would be people at high risk to re-offend and in need of additional rehabilitation or a more controlled transition to the outside world. In some cases, the center also could prevent someone who has re-entered the justice system from taking up a jail bed, officials said.

“It’s a big half-way house,” said Bob Ochs, the chief probation officer, referring specifically to the unlocked part of the center. “It’s for those halfway in to the jail system and those halfway out.”

Currently such offenders are either in jail, out in the community or using one of the county’s alternative sentencing programs, including a day reporting center, Ochs said. Such probation programs could ultimately be housed in the corrections facility and prove helpful to more offenders, he said.

“If they come back out doing just bed time it doesn’t help. We’re going to end up like the state,” Ochs said. “If we can reduce recidivism, the long-term payback will be enormous both in terms of fewer victims and reduced costs.”

Since 2009, California has been under court orders to reduce its prison population because of health and safety conditions caused by overcrowding. The shift of new lower-risk inmates to county jails is one of the ways the state has sought to address the problem.

Additional funding accompanying the shift is helping to bankroll a new wave of hiring at the Sheriff’s Office, where efforts are underway to fill 20 vacant correctional deputy positions. Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker said Thursday the office recently has tested 750 applicants for the open posts.

Outside of ongoing costs, the county’s construction match for the corrections center would come partly from the $2 million value of county land for the center — a vacant field just north of the main jail off Russell Avenue at the county’s administrative campus.

The remainder likely would come from one or both of two county sources: a $1.3 million capital construction fund for criminal justice departments and a $7 million countywide capital projects fund supported by tobacco settlement money.

The Board of Supervisors is set to take up the project at its regular meeting Tuesday morning.

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)





6 Responses to “Sonoma County eyes ambitious jail project”

  1. Bob says:

    They’re going to build this “near the main county jail”? WHERE? On that huge lot at the corner of Mendocino and Administration Drive that’s been empty for years? Traffic is already a disaster in that area and there are two of the most crash-prone intersections within a 1/2 mile.

    There are so many problems in that area currently with burglary, theft, automobile, homeless, and transient activity. The local bus schedules are horrendous, there is huge activity for Kaiser Hospital on one side and SRJC on the other.

    Local neighborhood associations truly hope that they are referring to the NORTH Main County Detention Facility with regard to this proposal.

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  2. Craig Harrison says:

    SOSroads Cautions Against Approving Proposed Community Corrections Center

    Save Our Sonoma Roads (SOSroads) cautions the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors against approving the Community Corrections Center as proposed by Sonoma County law enforcement officials.

    Law enforcement estimates that running the Community Corrections Center will cost an additional $11.5 million of general funds each year when it opens. Such estimates are always lower than actual costs.

    Encumbering the General Fund with yet another expensive obligation is unwise until the supervisors have approved a long-term plan to address the ongoing crisis concerning the repair and maintenance of county roads. A draft plan is expected later this year.

    In June 2012 the board of supervisors concluded that 53% of county roads need reconstruction and 751 of Sonoma County’s 1,283 road miles are failed or in poor condition. Roads conditions were exacerbated by decisions that reduced funding by two-thirds, adjusted for inflation, from 1990 levels. While SOSroads congratulates the county for recent decisions to bolster funding and for improving 67 miles of county roads (5% of the system) there is no plan for such improvements to continue.

    SOSroads believes that the level of support from the county’s General Fund should be remain at least at the $15 million level of the past two fiscal years. The descent of our county roads toward primitive dirt and gravel conditions can be attributed to a cumulative decline of $120 million in county funding from 1990 to 2011.

    San Joaquin County, which is burdened with Stockton’s bankruptcy problems, has declined to build a similar facility. Perhaps San Joaquin County achieves a pavement condition index of 65 for its county roads (Sonoma County’s PCI is in the low 40s and among the worst in California) because its supervisors are more disciplined in setting funding priorities.

    It has been suggested that the public will need to approve new taxes to solve our road problems. If General Funds now spent on roads are diverted to an expensive new Community Corrections Center, the public may lose confidence that the supervisors are serious about addressing the road issue. Perhaps it is time to redirect the conversation and ask the public if it wishes to raise taxes to support a new corrections center.

    SOSroads.org is an all-volunteer Sonoma County-wide citizens’ group formed to advocate for an improved allocation of public funds to roads. Learn more about Sonoma County roads at SOSroads.org.

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  3. James Bennett says:

    Wonder what percentage of these inmates are in for cannabis related crimes?

    So that we can pay, what are we up to, $6-80k a year?
    To the prison industry?

    Incarceration ‘n crashin’.

    All part of the Agenda.

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  4. James Bennett says:

    So…

    having high end hotels in Sonoma forfeits it’s identity, hmm.

    But…

    having a correctional facility/jail/prison in the hub of the Wine Country is OK?

    Hotels are largely welcome in Breckenridge Co. or Monaco.

    Truthful translation;

    the town of Sonoma is outside globalist plans because it’s outside Smart Train’s ‘Transportation Corridor’.

    So anything that’s either a ‘draw’, and/or builds the economy outside the small amount of real estate identified as holding areas for us ‘human cattle’ is on the chopping block.

    So logging, ag, Drake’s Bay Oyster Co., Hwy 12, small rural towns etc. aren’t on the Agenda.

    Also, it represents another black hole (like the casino), another source of big money to participate in with Public Private Partners.

    Also, another part of the Agenda is to make everyone the same (like famous oppressions always do). Bring less fortunate up (with our subsidy), bring the more affluent down. That’s what Shawn Donovan of HUD is doing; ‘racially mapping all communities in America to that end.

    Plus we are the incarceration kings here in land of the fee, home of the slave.

    One you understand UN Agenda 21, I swear this ‘news paper’ reads like a implementation/indoctrination manual.

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  5. Papa E says:

    Way to go Steveguy! Wow, some common sense, how unique, here in Sonoma County. Really loved “yes, fix the damn roads”. Too bad the local Pols will have nothing to do with a plan like yours; kinda like avoiding the Healdsburg/Geysers thing with Sonoma Greed Power, “oh look over here, we are going to be green, green, green”. Instead of saving ratepayers money. We all know the Millions of $ will go the the “movers and shakers” and their minions.

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  6. Steveguy says:

    Let’s do math ! $60 million is $375,000 per bed. What is this, Hong Kong ?

    This is another scam by the Prison Industrial Complex. A locked minimum security facility shouldn’t have to cost that much. If you fear escape by an inmate, put him on the farm or in the main jail.

    The halfway house concept works if the transitioning inmates can work. That can get complicated as much as the human population is complicated.

    If I just complain about this plan and offer nothing to help solve an issue, then I would just be blowing smoke. So here goes my rough plan for a plan:

    I would build residential style minimum security/half-way house of 60 beds next to the main jail for $10 million. Yes $10 million. Then another 40-60 out at the farm for maybe $5 million. I know, if it was a private sector they would be 1/2 the cost, but it’s the Government.

    Then they need to work as just turning out a prisoner to the streets with nothing almost guarantees recidivism.

    The largest part of my plan would be to use the transitioning inmates for an ambitious road fixing task. Yes, Fix the damn roads !

    Yes, pay them while they pay for their ‘rent’. They get work experience, we get fixed roads with maybe learning doing something useful. Heck, maintain the parks too ! Yes that would cost, maybe $10 million. I am still only up to $25 million and we get actually get something in return for their misdeeds. When their time is up, they can have enough money saved to ” go straight” and stay straight and be productive citizens.

    I am talking about a Road Crew Yard either where it is ( is it defunct now ?) or preferably put the yard next to the Farm. With a repair/machine shop, add $2 million. The Farm does fairly well and we should expand that. The State has proven that prisoner firefighter teams are an asset and the benefit goes both ways.

    If you teach a man how to maintain and repair an asphalt paving machine, etc .he can work on most any equipment.

    Heck, that is where County vehicles should be fixed but NOT the cop cars !

    Can the County claim $27 million for that ? Nope, as it is “special” money only for very expensive solutions. And yes, my $27 million is high, I just see more result for the money.

    For starters, we can reduce possession of drugs and paraphernalia from a felony to a misdemeanor . Then maybe get some mental health treatment instead of just brick and mortar ?

    There are better ways than this money suck.

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