Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles (photo: Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles Times)
California has spent the last two years trying to meet federal court orders to reduce its overcrowded prisons by shifting the flow of inmates to its already overcrowded county jails. There are around 40,000 fewer prison inmates now—and a lot more county jail prisoners.
The good news is that California lawmakers had the foresight in 2007 to authorize spending $1.2 billion on new jails and then later added another $500 million to the pot in 2012. The bad news is, six years later, only one of the construction projects has been completed and only a handful have been started.
Madera County was the first to apply for funds and the first to finish construction. It received $30 million for 144 beds. The largest projects are in the counties of San Bernardino (1,368 beds), San Joaquin (1,280), San Diego (1270), Riverside (1,250) and Los Angeles (1,024).
The Sacramento Bee ascribes much of the problem to the downturn in the economy that made it harder to sell construction bonds in the market and limited the ability of counties to provide required matching funds. But the newspaper also quoted Madera County corrections director Manuel Perez on another problem: “The red tape is unbelievable. It's not an easy process.” Other county officials complained of myriad environmental, design and property ownership issues.
But there were other stumbling blocks. The state gave priority to counties that built halfway houses and 13 of them committed to that, only to find that community opposition and other impediments reportedly forced them to back out.
Almost all of the 2007 money contained in Assembly Bill 900 has been allocated in two phases, which is why another $500 million was approved. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office reported in February that three of the 22 approved projects were scheduled to be completed this year, another in 2014, four in 2016 and one in 2018. The rest are “to be determined.”
When complete, the projects would add 10,894 beds in county jails, although about 1,600 replace those lost in old jail facilities that will no longer be used. The state must reduce its prison population, currently around 120,000, by 9,600 as of December 31.