The Riverside County Sheriff's Department has a jail crowding problem, and it's getting worse. Not only was the Department's plan to build a large jail near Palm Springs derailed by opposition, but the state of California -- under order of the Supreme Court -- is moving 30,000 inmates from state prisons into county jails, including Riverside's.
Riverside already locks up a significantly higher percentage of its population than the average California county, and the disparity seems to be growing. The county imprisoned its adult residents at 114% times the average for California counties in 2009, and 129% in 2010 -- the most recent year for which figures are currently available. Riverside County spent $149 million more in 2010 to house those prisoners than it would have if its incarceration rates reflected the state average.
Those figures include Riverside County residents sent to state prisons, some of them outside the county. The county's jails, operated by the Sheriff's department, are supposed to house prisoners awaiting arraignment or trial, or serving sentences of less than a year after conviction on misdemeanors. Inmates with longer sentences or felony convictions are traditionally remanded to state prisons, but with SCOTUS's order that the state alleviate overcrowding in state prisons some of those inmates are finding their way to Riverside County jails as well.
The offenses for which Riverside County residents are incarcerated reflect those in the rest of the state. In 2010 6,215 county residents were in state prisons after convictions for violent felonies, only about a thousand more than those imprisoned for drug-related felonies and under mandatory sentencing through the "Three Strikes" law. County jails, the destination of convicted misdemeanants, typically house a lower proportion of those convicted for extremely violent crimes. In fact, a state law passed last year to address the SCOTUS order, Assembly Bill 109, mandated that people convicted after October 2011 of non-violent, non-sexual and "non-serious" crimes be housed in county jails rather than state prisons. As a result, Riverside County's jails saw an influx of about 200 more inmates a month.
At the moment, Riverside County's jail system has somewhere under 4,000 beds, in five facilities splayed across the sprawling county from Riverside to Blythe. The tabled Whitewater jail would have added 7,200 beds, nearly tripling the system's capacity. After the Whitewater idea was dropped, most observers turned to the 350-bed Indio jail as the most likely first candidate for expansion. Sure enough, plans were announced in the first week of June to add 1,250 new beds to Indio, at a cost of $254 million.
In a story earlier this week in the Desert Sun, Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff said that his department really needed 4,000 more beds, calling the Indio expansion a "good idea" but nonetheless "a modest increase." Building 4,000 new beds worth of prison capacity, if each bed's cost was similar to those projected for the Indio expansion, would cost more than a billion dollars. That's one fifth the size of the county's total annual budget.
The expense of those prison beds isn't lost on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. Last fall, Supervisor Jeff Stone -- best known for his slapstick proposal to carve a new state of "South California" out of the state's easternmost counties -- made national news again by proposing the county charge inmates for the cost of their incarceration, at a rate of $142 a day. Prisoners would be exempted if they couldn't afford to pay, but Stone talked about garnishing wages and putting liens on houses as possible methods of collection. The Board of Supervisors approved the resolution unanimously in November, and it was supposed to go into effect December 1, but implementation seems to be languishing.
There hasn't been a whole lot of discussion of what would seem to be the obvious "Plan B" here. Other counties share the problem of county jails overflowing with expensive-to-house non-violent offenders. If we're laying off teachers and firefighters so that we can imprison substance abusers at a cost of $52,000 per annum we are, in the parlance of the Internet, Doin' It Wrong. How about we keep the violent criminals and sexual predators locked up, sentence the perpetrators of non-violent property crimes to perform effective restitution to their victims and to the community, get addicts the help they need to get clean, stop punishing people for using marijuana, and embark on a statewide campaign to repeal the inflammatory and reactionary "Three Strikes" law so that third offense convictions on drug possession don't automatically come with multi-decade jail sentences?
I suspect this idea may not fly with the fear-driven, "lock-em-up" Tea Party set who wholeheartedly support this multi-billion dollar taxpayer-funded government-owned industry, but I'm betting the rest of the state's taxpayers would like it.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.