Sonoma County eyes ambitious jail project

  • Sonoma County Jail inmates wait for transfer to the North County Detention Facility in 2009. (PD FILE)

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.

The 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.

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