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Tuesday, Oct 29 2013 11:01 PM

JENIFER PITCHER: Weigh the costs: Putting Kern prisoners in CCFs makes sense

The recent events concerning the Taft Community Correctional Facility raise a lot of questions about the path we are taking on prison realignment. The biggest question: Why can Los Angeles County or the state department of corrections contract with the Taft CCF to house inmates but Kern County cannot?

Kern Citizens for Sustainable Government has been asking this question for well over a year. We asked the Sheriff and the Board of Supervisors to consider housing inmates in the CCFs as opposed to building another jail back in August 2012. Our reasoning is simple: the CCFs are cheaper to run. It is a contracted service where the county will have no long-term liability (such as pension obligations) as they would if they were to build a new jail and staff it with county employees. It would bring back hundreds of jobs to the cities of Taft, Shafter and McFarland. We argued that we are in a rare position that other counties would love to be in. Of the four publicly run CCFs in the state, Kern County is home to three of them. Why not take the advantage of this blessing?

We raised this question to a multitude of community organizations. Everyone we spoke to in the community agreed: why aren't we contracting? Why are we building a new jail? Ultimately, the decision lies with the Sheriff, and only the Sheriff. He argued passionately that Kern County needs a new jail to house these "new, more sophisticated inmates." A fair point -- except that the new jail does not help us at all right now. The problem is already here.

We've been told the transportation and medical costs would be too expensive. Then we were told that the CCFs could only house minimum security inmates, and we needed beds for medium and maximum security inmates. (L.A. County and state corrections have talked about using these facilities for their medium security inmates). So, we asked for a study on the cost to retrofit the current facilities to house medium security inmates. The county came to the conclusion that the cost to retrofit would be too expensive.

So, the "solution": accept the $100 million "grant" from the state (I use quotation marks because this is not a true grant -- the state will be issuing bonds to cover this cost). Pay the $10 million in matching funds, plus the $10 million in other costs not covered under AB 900, and take on an additional $28 million annually for staff.

While the Lerdo facility is in bad condition, it makes no sense to make a bad situation worse. And now that AB 109 is here and prisoners aren't going to state jails, we find ourselves in a pickle because we waited too long to address Lerdo's condition. Consider it an opportunity missed. Wouldn't it have been smarter to contract with the jails that are already built, and save for a new facility down the road? Or, apply and accept the grant to build a new minimum security jail and shut Lerdo down and contract with the CCFs for the medium inmates? Either way, weigh the long term costs the county will inherit when hiring additional employees.

The people of Kern County were duped. We asked repeatedly for answers to this issue, and were given answers that no longer hold water. The Californian reports that the Taft facility will in fact house medium security inmates ("Taft sets sights on state inmates after LA pulls out of deal," Oct. 24). We were given a whole myriad of reasons as to why this doesn't make sense for Kern County, but we just don't buy it. We have been told that since we have never run a jail, we are not qualified to make these arguments.

That is certainly true, but we're not the only ones asking these questions and we are not the only group that seems to see an opportunity; Los Angeles County and the state department of corrections are knocking on our door. These are taxpayer dollars going to house these prisoners. Let's make sure they are used most effectively. Every citizen expects and deserves that, and we do not believe the public has been given a complete answer.

Jenifer Pitcher is the community and government liaison for Kern Citizens for Sustainable Government, a local, nonprofit advocacy group. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.

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