Jail construction debate heats up in Sacramento

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Lobbyists for Los Angeles County appeared in Sacramento Thursday to ask the state for help funding a proposed $1.8 billion overhaul of the county jail system.

Los Angeles is among many counties hoping a proposal to dish out $500 million in jail construction funds will make it through the state budget process. Previous years have provided a total of $1.2 billion in such grants to counties.

San Bernardino, L.A. and dozens of other counties argue they're overcrowded due to realignment, which sent many state prison inmates to local jails. That was part of California's solution to comply with a federal order to reduce prison overcrowding.

"We have received approximately thirty percent of the realigned population — 6,000 county jail inmates that have been sentenced under realignment," Alan Fernandes, L.A. County's chief legislative advocate, told the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Corrections. "But we've received about five percent of the available funding for jail construction."

Los Angeles was passed over for a previous grant that required counties to utilize a risk-based system to evaluate which inmates to hold in jail while they await trial. About 50 percent of L.A.'s jail population is comprised of defendants awaiting trial.

"We don't think it's a prescription for the entire state," Fernandes said of pretrial assessments, while urging the legislature to drop the requirement from future funding rounds. 

Other counties, such as San Bernardino, pointed to aging facilities to bolster their case.

"We have a different inmate than we did 10 or 20 years ago," said Barbara Ferguson, legislative liaison at the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. "We need a better, safer facility."

A report issued Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California found that about half of California's county jails were built in the 1970s or earlier — and that it would cost about $3 billion to update them all.

But State Senator Loni Hancock (D-East Bay) said she worries more jail construction would amount to "business as usual" for California.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison overcrowding, the realignment solution was not to simply "replicate our prison system county jail-by-county jail," Hancock said.

The non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office also advised that local governments have not thoroughly utilized alternatives to jail for non-violent inmates.

"Counties have several tools to address their population increases," said Lia Moore, a fiscal and policy analyst with the LAO. "It's also unclear if this funding would be better used for jail capacity or programs — which is the greater need in counties."

The subcommittee voted to add their recommendation to the legislature that the funds be available to counties not just for jail construction, but for other related uses as well. If their recommendation holds, the money could potentially be used for community mental health and substance abuse facilities. 

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