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Sonoma County supervisors agreed Monday to spend $280,000 on plans to expand the jail to accommodate so-called "special needs" inmates such as violent offenders and people with mental health issues.

Although the average jail population has recently declined, the number of inmates in the special category has grown 350 percent in 10 years, led mostly by gang members who are nearly a third of all incarcerated adults, said Assistant Sheriff Linda Suvoy.

Architects must begin work immediately designing single-cell facilities to hold them, as well as planning other improvements to housing modules that will be necessary in the upcoming one to two years, said Suvoy, who oversees the detention division.

"There has been a decrease in the general population lately ... but we need special needs beds now," Suvoy told supervisors.

Her comments came during a board study session examining the future of the county jail, including options designed to divert offenders into programs that keep them out of jail.

In light of a current lack of money and studies promising success from certain programs, supervisors appeared to endorse a multi-pronged approach to deal with a projected increase in the number of criminal offenders. Three years ago, officials were considering doubling the number of beds at a cost of about $450 million. Now, the county is looking for alternatives to expanding the jail.

"I think we came away with a full-throttle endorsement of Plan B," Chief Probation Officer Robert Ochs said.

That plan hinges in part on two new programs and one begun a year ago — all meant to free up jail space and reduce repeat offenses.

Preliminary statistics on the Early Case Resolution court, started last January, show it is moving cases through the system faster, reducing jail waiting time and costs, officials said.

At the same time, the so-called ECR court led to felony convictions in 83 percent of cases in the first quarter of 2009 — the period of the latest available data, said David Bennett, the county's corrections planning consultant.

"The district attorney is not giving away the store," Bennett told supervisors before an audience of criminal justice officials. "He is getting his convictions."

Two new initiatives, a pretrial services program and a community corrections center, also would reduce repeat offenses and the need for jail space. But the funding for those programs is not yet identified.

The pretrial program, which would release some defendants while they await trial, would cost up to $2 million. The community correction center, envisioned to prepare inmates for life on the outside, would cost $107 million to build and be run at a cost of $16 million a year. Officials said they would consider a pilot program at the old north county detention facility that would cost up to $2 million.

Staff is expected to return to the board in the future to discuss funding options.

Bail bondsmen criticized the pretrial services program, which would eliminate the need for a portion of their services by replacing them with a county-run plan.

Jail population has been flat over the past year, with an average daily population of 1,029 inmates in 2009. The population peaked in 2005 at 1,153.

The jail can hold 1,400 inmates but that amount could be exceeded over the next 10 years.

Supervisors acknowledged a lack of funds for jail construction but said an expansion of some kind is inevitable. Most agree the county's aging facility in the north county is in need of replacement.

"No matter how much work we do on this, it will not obviate the need for new facilities," said Supervisor Paul Kelley, the board chairman.