BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer email@example.com
Kern County has been conditionally awarded $100 million in state money to fund construction of a new medium-maximum security wing at Lerdo Jail, Sheriff Donny Youngblood announced Friday.
Kern County gave up that $100 million in June 2011 after the Board of Supervisors decided it couldn't afford the $25 million in required matching money to secure the grant nor the estimated $20 million a year it would cost the county to staff and run the additional jail space.
But for this new pool of so-called Assembly Bill 900 money, the state reduced the required match to at least 10 percent of the cost of the facility, so Kern County applied for it. Kern knew when it passed up the first round of funding that it could apply for this second one.
Youngblood was chairman of the state executive steering committee that recommended, in March, that the Correction Standards Authority fund 19 of the 20 counties asking for Phase 2 AB 900 money.
On Thursday, the Board of State and Community Corrections, the successor to the CSA, conditionally awarded the $100 million to Kern. The Kern County Board of Supervisors would have to vote to accept the funding.
But if and when they vote to accept the $100 million, Youngblood said, they will be committing to building a jail facility for which he does not yet have a concrete final cost. The county, if it takes the money, would need to find funding for any difference between the construction cost of the facility and the $100 million grant.
Youngblood said he hopes to have a firm estimate of that full jail expansion cost to share with the board before it votes on the grant.
He plans to bring the proposal to the board in the next 30 days. Construction would take at least four years to complete.
The jail building is planned to contain 576 beds for inmates, 128 beds for inmates with mental health issues, seven medical care beds and 15 suicide watch beds.
Kern County Mental Health Director James Waterman said the mental health beds would replace a hodge-podge of beds at Lerdo's max-medium facility, the infirmary and the central receiving facility that house inmates with immediate mental illness issues.
Youngblood said 30 percent of the jail population has mental illness. The dedicated jail beds, Waterman said, would make serving them much more efficient.
Youngblood acknowledged that the county must begin to focus on reducing the rate at which inmates reoffend.
"Let's build a jail," Waterman said, "and figure out how to keep people out of it."
Youngblood said the new jail would require a substantial amount of money to run. The hope is that, in the short term, it would be less than the $20 million estimate sheriff's officials came up with during the initial round of the grant process.
Youngblood said he would close some of Lerdo's 22 minimum-security barracks and shift staff to the newly constructed facility as a temporary measure to control costs.
He said the expansion is critical to handling the increase in inmates -- including maximum- and medium-security ones -- resulting from the state shifting responsibility for incarcerating non-sexual, non-violent, non-serious inmates to counties.
The state's move also helped it comply with rulings in federal lawsuits that found the state was jeopardizing inmates' health in cramped, inadequate facilities.
Youngblood said Kern County risks putting itself in the path of the same legal claims if it doesn't build the new jail.
He also acknowledged criticism of his decision not to move county inmates into now-empty community correctional facilities run by the cities of Taft, Shafter and Delano.
But his critics are, he said, "not the sheriff. I am. I will do what I think is right."
He is focusing on the demand for high-security space that would be provided by the new jail.
"We don't need new minimum beds," Youngblood said. "You cannot take the gang members we have today and put them in minimum facility and say, 'You guys just get along.'"
"We understand that it is ultimately up to the sheriff how to run his department," said Jenifer Pitcher of the Kern Citizens for Sustainable Growth, a fiscally conservative group that monitors local government. "We don't think the more cost-effective option has been given much attention."
Nobody has asked the CCFs, she said, to explain what it would cost to retrofit their facilities to house the medium-security inmates Youngblood is looking to place.
The group has asked supervisors to do a cost analysis of retrofitting the CCFs to see if it would be cheaper, Pitcher said.
Youngblood said the CCFs would cost the county more than twice what he's been given to handle state realignment prisoners and that realignment has already pushed all the minimum-security inmates who would fit into a CCF out of his jail.
Sixty days ago, Youngblood said, he had about 400 inmates eligible to be kept in a CCF that were housed at Lerdo. Now he has 169 CCF-eligible inmates at Lerdo.
About 1,000 such inmates are out on electronic monitoring, sheriff's parole or some other form of alternative incarceration.
He said his critics often ask why he can't use the money from AB 900 to fund anything other than a new jail.
"The $100 million grant cannot be used to rebuild anything. It cannot be put into CCFs," Youngblood said. "You can't use that money for anything but new construction."
Shafter City Manager John Guinn said he understands Youngblood's justification for not pursing contracts with CCF facilities and said it is more logical for Los Angeles County, which "has far more of those lower level inmates than Kern County does" to develop relationships with facilities like the one he runs in Shafter.
But he pointed out that, at a price of $100 million, building the new facility at Lerdo Jail would cost $125,000 a bed.
Taxpayers, Guinn said, should be questioning how the state got them into a situation where a bed for a criminal costs about the same as a home for a family.
"It does cost too much to incarcerate people. We've found ourselves in this situation where we can't afford to protect ourselves," he said. "There need to be answers for that."