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Sheriff looking for jail solution

Sep 28, 2007

Sheriff looking for jail solution

La Honda facility or outsourcing are options

A group of deserted buildings in La Honda may be Sheriff Greg Munks' best hope to ease the strains on San Mateo County's crowded jails.

The county-owned medium-security facility has been idle in the unincorporated area since it was shuttered in 2003 to balance the sheriff's office budget. It once hosted a minimum-security honor camp for inmates who were in work crews or fire safety programs.

Now, the county faces the daunting task of finding somewhere to house its burgeoning inmate population until new jail facilities can be built - a project still in its conceptual stages.

"Right now (La Honda) is a fairly new facility that's sitting there empty," Munks told the Board of Supervisors this week, "and we've got a crisis on our hands."

The population at the men's Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City hovers around 1,050 inmates, far above its rated capacity of 688. Likewise, the population at the women's jail, which is rated for 84 inmates, regularly exceeds 150.

A new sheriff's office Jail Planning Unit, approved this week as part of the 2007-08 county budget at a cost of $354,214, will examine the La Honda option as a quick fix for the jail crunch.

"There's no question we need to do something and we need to do something fairly soon," said Supervisor Mark Church.

Reopening the La Honda facility would cost about $800,000, much of that in maintenance work to replace copper wiring and other equipment that was stolen after the site was "mothballed," Munks said. It would also need work by PG&E to get the electrical system functioning, which could take three months or more.

After that, it would cost about $4.8 million annually to run and could house as many as 140 to 150 medium-security inmates from Maguire, a maximum-security jail, Munks said. But its remote location would rack up $400,000 per year in transportation costs and would make it difficult to provide the inmates with rehabilitation programs designed to help them stay out of jail when their sentences are up.

The Jail Planning Unit will also consider shipping inmates to jails with extra bed space, like those in Alameda and San Bruno. The San Bruno jail is operated by San Francisco County.

That outsourcing option is a more expensive proposition, estimated by Munks to cost $8 million a year.

"I'm far more interested in contracting out," said Supervisor Rich Gordon. Of the La Honda facility, Gordon said, "It's not a good long-term solution for us in terms of a programmatic site."

Officials had hoped Assembly Bill 900, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in May, would help alleviate the overcrowding problem with $1.2 billion in funding to expand local jails. But that legislation is being held up by a lawsuit.

Further complicating matters, a panel of federal judges is considering establishing a cap on the state's prison population.

For now, Munks is focused on finding a local answer to the crisis.

But, as he told the Board of Supervisors, "The problem did not occur overnight and I do not believe there is a simple solution to solve it."