Thursday, July 1, 2010

Santa Cruz County Grand Jury recommends more jail staff, but cuts are coming

By Jennifer Squires - Santa Cruz Sentinel
Posted: 06/29/2010 07:04:22 PM PDT
Updated: 06/29/2010 07:04:57 PM PDT

SANTA CRUZ - The Grand Jury report released Tuesday recommends the county's jail facilities hire more correctional officers to function more efficiently and increase safety, but budget cuts this summer mean correctional officers actually are being laid off.

The report stated five correctional officer positions were unfilled when Grand Jury members toured the county's main jail facility on Water Street within the past year and the shortage "hinders the individual care and progress of inmates and overburdens the workload of current correctional officers."

Sheriff Phil Wowak said he "wholeheartedly" agrees with the Grand Jury report, but funding reductions have his hands tied. The Sheriff's Office, which operates the county's adult jail facilities, has been grappling with severe budget cuts in recent years.

"For us to go along with the average daily population we have and to maintain a safe facility that is focused on correction and not just detention, we should restaff the cut positions as soon as funds become available," Wowak said.

Seven vacant correctional officer positions have been frozen this year and three additional officers will be laid off by August, according to Deputy Chief Jeff Marsh, who oversees jail operations for the Sheriff's Office.

"We knew this was coming so we've been freezing every position that's come open through attrition," Marsh said.

Eight of the 10 eliminated positions are at the Rountree facility north of Watsonville where, earlier this year, the Sheriff's Office shuttered the minimum-security Jail Farm to save money and transferred low-risk inmates to the medium-security housing area at the same site, Marsh said.

The other two correctional officer positions that will be cut are classification officers who work at all jail facilities and do not directly supervise inmates, Wowak said.

Employees also are required to take 156 hours of work furlough annually, which amounts to a 7 percent staff reduction, according to Marsh. He said staffing levels in the county's jail system are at the absolute minimum, but added that no procedures have changed and all required positions are still staffed.

Still, the cuts have a significant impact on jail functions. For example, the decreased number of correctional officers means there is not enough staff to utilize the 162-bed Jail Farm facility. That amounts to a 27 percent drop in beds for inmates.

"I have no safety valve left," Marsh said. "I have no extra personnel. I have no place to put inmates. We're walking on the thinnest of ice right now."

In addition to the correctional officer cuts, the Sheriff's Office reduced or eliminated about seven non-sworn support staff positions and will continue to freeze 20 unfilled sheriff's deputy jobs during the coming fiscal year, Wowak said.

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