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The California Legislature Approves Additional $270 Million for Jail Construction

On June 15, the California Legislature passed Senate Bill (SB) 844, a component of the finalized 2016-17 budget package, creating yet another allocation for local criminal justice facility construction – an investment of $270 million in lease revenue bonds. If approved by Governor Brown, these funds will support jail construction projects in counties that have not received full project funding through previous state grant programs.

daveynin | flickr creative commons

This $270 million expenditure would bolster the county jail system at a time when populations are declining, and support jail construction in counties that have been unable to demonstrate a need for greater investment in secure facilities.

Since 2007, the California Legislature has authorized $2.2 billion for the construction of county jail facilities throughout the state. These previous grant programs, enacted through Assembly Bill (AB) 900, Senate Bill (SB) 1022, and Senate Bill (SB) 863, widened local nets and reaffirmed California’s reliance on incarceration while offering no benefit to public safety.

Recently, Californians approved Proposition 47, which reclassified several low-level property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. In the months following the passage of Proposition 47 (between October 2014 and March 2015), the average daily populations of county jails fell by approximately 9,000. In light of these eased capacity demands, it is unreasonable for the state legislature and the governor to allocate additional resources in support of jail expansion or renovation. In its analysis of Governor Brown’s proposed budget bill, the Legislative Analyst’s Office alluded to this missing justification when it highlighted the inadequate needs assessment underpinning the original jail construction proposal: “the administration has not provided an estimate of the number of additional jail beds counties need or the amount of additional rehabilitative program or health service space needed. 

If approved, these jail construction funds would be awarded through the Board of State and Community Correction (BSCC). In the past, the BSCC has allocated jail construction grants by ranking counties and awarding full project funding until resources are exhausted. This approach has failed to hold applicants to a set of minimum standards, resulting in excessive state spending on poorly developed projects. The requirement under SB 844 that funds be allocated to counties that have not yet received awards, or have received only partial awards, would reduce the applicant pool from 58 to 20, allowing counties with previously unsatisfactory applications to enjoy less competition.

Figure 1: The sentenced and unsentenced average daily populations of county jails that received no funding or only a partial award through previous jail construction grant programs.

Source: Legislative Analyst's Office; Board of State and Community Corrections

Of the 20 counties potentially eligible for jail construction funding under SB 844, 13 are defined as “small,” having populations of less than 200,000. A recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice demonstrated that, nationwide, small county jail populations have grown at faster rates than medium or large ones. This seems to be due, in part, to differences in county investment in jail population reduction measures such as diversion programs, pretrial services, and alternatives to detention. The 20 California counties that have not received a previous grant or have only received a partial award reported higher pretrial populations in June 2015 (70%) than the statewide average of 63 percent, with several counties reporting that more than 75 percent of their jail populations had not yet been sentenced. This suggests limited commitment among potentially eligible counties to reducing incarcerated populations through cost-effective pretrial services.

SB 844 runs counter to statewide trends in criminal justice reform by expending state resources on costly, unnecessary construction and deepening local reliance on incarceration. Rather than spend $270 million to strengthen the county jail system, California should invest in community-based programs proven to reduce recidivism and address the underlying causes of systems involvement.

Keywords: AB 109, BSCC, budget, governor, jail, jail construction funding, Jerry Brown, lease revenue, net widening, pretrial, Prop 47, Realignment, SB 844, unsentenced

Posted in Blog, Correctional Institutions, Political Landscape

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