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Our view: Placer meeting jail needs for now, but is crisis looming?

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Placer County Jail is like most other county correctional facilities and state prisons these days: Too many inmates, not enough beds. As Auburn Journal reporter Jenifer Gee outlined in her three-part series, “Going Behind Bars,” the county jail operates much like a small city. Many of the concerns are the same – food, water, shelter and safety – only amplified when too many people are crowded into confined space. Unfortunately, the economic downturn that has slashed jobs has not done the same to the county crime rolls. The jail continues to operate well beyond the capacity it was built for, and the revolving door of criminals who make the facility their home at one time or another is only increasing. Some 11,363 men and women were booked into the jail last year alone. In the distant past, the solution would have been simple – build more jail space, add beds and correctional officers, and keep the escalating criminal population in line. But with average annual inmate costs exceeding $30,000 each, and much higher for the mentally and physically ill prisoners, additional jail space has been a tough sell. No jail funding measures have passed since 1990. Placer County has taken a different approach. With most of the recent population growth taking place in South Placer, county government — in partnership with cities and builders, who pay capital facility impact fees — has been constructing facilities to match needs. The Bill Santucci Justice Center includes recently constructed courts, probation and district attorney’s offices near Roseville. By December 2011, the county-owned site also will house the South Placer Adult Detention Center. The county is close to awarding contracts to design and build a facility that will house up to 360 inmates. The latest estimate is that the project’s overall cost will come in at under $100 million. There’s also room on the site for expansion to 980 beds, but no plans are moving forward on that at this time.  Those 360 additional beds will fill in time, just as they have elsewhere. And doing so won’t come cheap. California taxpayers pay about 28 percent more to house their inmates than other states. More than 9 percent of the California state budget goes to corrections. Only four states contribute a higher percentage. Different thinking is needed to solve this dilemma. Reducing recidivism — or repeat offenders — is one piece of the puzzle. Rick Jaramillo’s transitional homes program, Re-Entry Inc., profiled in the series, appears to be succeeding. A former felon himself, Jaramillo operates some 20 homes in the greater Auburn area that provide paroled criminals a place to call home while they transition to life outside the cell. The transitional homes, with strict rules of conduct, provide a path to normalcy that many never walked. But unless some changes are made on the front end of the system, programs like Jaramillo’s will become as congested as the jails and prisons these men came from. Investing in transitional programs seems like a wise use of public funds. Another way some have suggested would be to completely de-criminalize some drugs, such as marijuana. Earlier this month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested such a debate was necessary, including the aspect of taxing and regulating marijuana much like alcohol. Polls show a majority of Californians favoring such decriminalization. Another suggestion would be to release or reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders who clog the courts and prison system. It is less expensive and more humane to support drug prevention and treatment programs than to warehouse addicts in jails, while pillaging our state coffers and cutting education to pay for them. A portion of the money saved from reducing the number of non-violent drug offenders in our jails and prisons could be used for drug prevention and rehabilitation programs. Clearly, fixing the county jail and state prison systems isn’t going to be easy, and tough choices will have to be made to balance public safety with available resources. But with the state in a budget crisis that is sure to trickle down to the county, comprehensive restructuring is needed.