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.