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Sonoma County eyes ambitious jail project


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.

"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.)