Just more than a month ago-after working with the state for several months under the presumption that it had its permission-the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department received word from the state that it will in fact not be able to run what had been planned to be a jail with a re-entry facility in North County. On July 3, the Sheriff’s Department received a letter from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation notifying them that a contracted law firm offered a legal opinion that the planned joint facility couldn’t be operated by the county under the terms of AB 900, which set aside $1.2 billion for new jails.
AB 900 could very well solve the county’s jail overcrowding problem. The quest for a new jail in north Santa Barbara County has gone down a long and possibly never-ending road for two decades, but in May 2007 optimism abounded when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law the bill. The county submitted a grant proposal seeking $56.2 million in March of this year, and the grant was conditionally awarded in May, with the understanding that the county would operate the jail and the reentry facility. But the July letter squashed that idea. “This in essence closed the door to this joint facility,” Sheriff Bill Brown said. “But another door has opened for us.”
That new open door would be a reentry facility-designed to lower recidivism rates and help inmates readapt to society and-in Paso Robles, on Department of Corrections-owned land already home to a youth correctional facility. The county would team with San Luis Obispo County and Benito County in partnering with the state in a state-run reentry facility. If the county goes along with the deal, it would still be eligible to receive the grant for $56.2 million toward its North County jail.
The original plan for the facility in Paso Robles called for 250 reentry beds, but that number would be bumped to 500, with half dedicated to inmates returning to Santa Barbara County. Paso Robles is still considering whether it will cooperate in building the facility within its borders. With the county receiving roughly 1,000 inmates back from state prisons annually, one of Paso Robles’ conditions is that Santa Barbara County transport its inmates back home so that they all aren’t released in Paso Robles.
The county would then be left to operate its North County Jail and be responsible for the $24 million left on its $80 million price tag. Brown estimates the annual cost of maintaining the jail to be $15.35 million, which includes $2.4 million in debt service to eliminate the $24 million. The annual cost now becomes the hang-up for the supervisors, who recently had to cut $26 million from the county’s 2008-2009 budget.
The county has at minimum four to five years before any facility would open, which means the supervisors have time to figure out a way to pay for the annual jail costs. The supervisors seemed to agree that they need to be on their way toward funding the annual costs-whether through a sales tax, oil tax, or some other revenue generator-before committing to building the facility and accepting the grant money. “If we can’t find the money, I think it’s important we address that at the critical point of no turning back,” said 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal.
For now, the supervisors were content with advancing the project, and voted Tuesday for a resolution of assurance that the county owned the projected site for the jail, set on a 50-acre parcel at Black and Betteravia roads in Santa Maria. County administrator Michael Brown will be in front of the board on September 2 to further explore the issue.