State awards $500M in jail construction funds: Sheriffs want more resources, protesters want fewer jails

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An unusually rowdy meeting of a state corrections board Thursday drew malcontent county sheriffs and anti-jail protesters to an L.A. County jail in Lynwood.

The Board of State and Community Corrections met at Century Regional Detention Facility in part to dish out $500 million in state grants for county jail construction awarded under Senate Bill 1022. 

County sheriffs travelled from as far as Butte, Stanislaus, and Monterey counties to express their frustration at being passed over for the grants and to make a final appeal to the board. It didn't work; out of 35 counties who applied, 15 were awarded grants. An appeal process may follow today's meeting.

Under prison realignment, which went into effect in 2011, counties across the state have become responsible for punishing lower level offenders, such as those convicted of drug and property felonies. And county jails are bursting with the influx of inmates. 

RELATED: FAQ: Looking at the effects of California's prison realignment program

Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman told the board he was disappointed that with all the need in the state, the amount of resources is so limited.

"So what do we do, do we sit here and complain?,  do I go to my fellow sheriffs and say 'you don't deserve that money because I do'?" Allmas said. "No, I'm not going to."

Instead, he said, the legislature needs to provide adequate resources to all counties. 

Los Angeles was among the losers — though the county does have $100 million in state grants for jail building under another bill, AB900. L.A. Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald told the board that's not enough for the largest county in the state. Since realignment took effect, L.A.'s jails have taken in 6,000 offenders who would have been previously sent to state prison. That's more than any other county and more than the next top three counties combined, McDonald said.

"I'm asking for your leadership and support in helping a system like L.A. County figure out how to do this," McDonald told the board.

L.A. is in the process of planning a replacement for the antiquated Men's Central Jail and is considering a much larger reshuffling of the jail system — the largest in the country.

Outside, members of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) said there's no reason L.A.'s large jail system should become larger still.

"We think the money could better be used in the community and don't think building jails is the answer to our social problems," said protest organizer Diana Zuniga. She said money put towards jails could better be used for community programming and schools.

Inside, during the public comment period, CURB members exchanged words with board members, like Mimi Silbert, president of Delancey Street Foundation, an organization that helps former jail and prison inmates learn job skills and find employment and housing.

"Protesting doesn't change anything," Silbert said. "You need to go to the legislature and tell them what works."

After the vote, when asked about the polarized debate between sheriffs and anti-jail protesters, board member Dean Growdon, sheriff of Lassen County, said there was more middle ground than some might imagine.

Lassen County, a small, rural county in Northern California, and home to two prisons, is fairly conservative when it comes to law and order, he said. Post-realignment, he said, things have started to shift.

"We're doing things I never thought we would do. Like electronic monitoring and  residential drug treatment," Growdon said. 

"We're taking positive steps and going in the right direction, but you can't turn the Titanic overnight  either," he added.

Governor Jerry Brown's proposed budget for the coming year contains more funding for schools. It also proposes an additional $500 million for jail construction. The legislature will consider his proposals in the coming months. 

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