Saturday, July 8, 2017

[Santa Barbara County] Our View: Making room for criminals

Blog note: this opinion piece references a recent grand jury report critical of jail services.
Like any major construction project, there have been a few problems in constructing the North County Jail.
For one thing, arrangements needed to be made to bring potable water, electric power and utilities connections to the site on Black Road. Nothing unusual about that, when you consider the jail facility is costing $111 million, and when finished will be similar to a large hotel — except the “guests” don’t get to spend the night and go home.
Santa Barbara County officials recently provided the Board of Supervisors with a construction update, and the report is positive — the project is on schedule, on budget or below, and should be functional by October of next year.
That won’t be the start of incarcerating jail inmates, however. The October target is for getting the facility ready for intake. There is a lot to be accomplished in any facility with 376 beds, and state-of-the-art medical and mental-health facilities.
In fact, by the time the new jail is fully outfitted, inmates probably won’t be taken in until March 2019. So, a completed, fully-functioning jail is still a long ways off.
But it likely will be an accomplishment worth waiting for. The jail will serve many useful purposes, not the least of which is to ease some of the occupancy pressures at the county’s Main Jail in Goleta, including the addition of those medical and mental-health facilities and services.
That last part entered the spotlight a few days ago with the release of a county grand jury report generally critical of the lack of such services at the Main Jail.
That facility dates back to the 1960s and has faced near-chronic overcrowding, to such an extent that the courts periodically order early release of inmates.
The overcrowding also is a factor in the grand jury’s determination that too many inmates suffering from mental-health issues do not receive needed medical attention. County officials say an estimated 45 percent of the Main Jail inmate population has mental health issues.
The jury is seeking a response from the county on several jail-related matters.
In fact, the Sheriff’s Department has already initiated changes that may satisfy some of the grand jury’s concerns. But the overcrowding will persist until the North County Jail opens its doors to inmates.
In view of all the jail-related problems the county has experienced over the years, it raises the question of why a North County facility wasn’t built many years ago. The answer, as it usually is with regard to government actions, is money-related. This county has struggled with budgetary problems almost as long as the Main Jail has been plagued by overcrowding.
Here’s something else to consider — even when opened, and all 376 bunks are occupied, the county will likely still have jail crowding issues. Couple that with the age of the Main Jail and the steady growth in the county’s population, and it’s not difficult to envision the need for even more jail space in the not-so-distant future.
Add that to the county’s mushrooming, unfunded pension obligations, and the backlog of deferred maintenance projects, and you come up with a future in which the Board of Supervisors will be forced to make some very hard decisions.
A state grant helped with construction costs on the North County Jail, and that sort of cooperation from state government is crucial.
July 3, 2017
Santa Maria Times

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