Does California Need More Jail Construction Funding?

Last week the Assembly budget subcommittee on public safety approved the Governor’s proposal to provide $500 million in lease-revenue bond financing for the construction of county jails. These funds would be distributed through a competitive grant process that requires a 10 percent county contribution. Under the Governor’s proposal, these funds could be used to improve or replace current facilities and to build space that would house rehabilitative services, such as classrooms and mental health treatment space. These dollars would supplement $1.7 billion that state policymakers have already allocated to jail construction since 2007.

However, it’s unclear that counties need additional funding to build or expand jails. Experts have identified several cost-effective alternatives to incarceration that would relieve jail overcrowding and reduce the need for further construction, but not all counties are fully using these alternatives. For example, roughly two-thirds of people in jail are not serving sentences — in fact they may be innocent of any crime — but rather are being detained prior to their trials, often because they cannot afford bail. Alternatives to incarceration for these individuals — such as community-based supervision and day reporting centers — would maintain public safety, avoid unnecessary jail construction, and have far lower long-term operational costs. As the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) has noted, “counties that have not employed such tools may not necessarily need state funds for jail construction to address their jail capacity needs.”

The Governor has not yet substantiated the need for additional jail construction funds beyond what has been previously allocated. Members of the Senate budget subcommittee on public safety — in contrast to their Assembly colleagues — recently voted to reject the Governor’s proposal and approved an alternate plan that calls for using the lease-revenue bonds to finance a broader range of county projects, including jails, transitional housing, and mental health treatment facilities.

As the Legislature works with the Governor to finalize the 2014-15 budget, closer scrutiny of the state’s continued jail construction spending is critical. Given the Administration’s recognition that community-based support systems provide the best opportunity to reduce low-level crime, the state may be better able to improve public safety by providing community-based substance use disorder treatment as well as reinvesting in critical services and systems that are still operating at severely diminished levels, such as child care and higher education.

— Selena Teji