How Much Does it Really Cost to Keep Santa Ana’s Jail Open?

Santa Ana Police Department headquarters, which includes the city's jail. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

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Ask Santa Ana officials and they’ll tell you that when it comes to the city’s controversial jail, the fiscally responsible thing to do for the next several years is to keep it open and continue the contract with the feds to house immigration detainees.

But there’s another way to look at the jail’s finances, one in which the fiscally responsible thing to do would be to close the jail now.

The jail is a lightening rod mainly because of the city’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigration detainees at a daily rate of $105 per inmate. Activists fighting the ICE contract say it is morally unconscionable for a city that is nearly 80 percent Latino to profit from the jailing of its own people.

And the activists won’t be relenting anytime soon. On Monday, they announced a hunger strike aimed at ending detention of transgender immigrants at the city jail. It’s a safe bet that the activists will be out in full force for the regular City Council meeting Tuesday night, when council members are scheduled to consider hiring a consultant to study possible reuses of the jail.

Most city leaders say they sympathize with the activists, but contend that canceling the ICE contract would be a major hit to the city budget.

According to the accounting by the city’s finance department, the main roadblock to closing the jail is a $3 million annual debt payment on the jail’s portion of the bond the city floated in the 1990s to finance constructing the jail and accompanying police headquarters.

The debt won’t be paid off until 2024, and until then the facility needs to generate revenue to offset the annual debt payments, officials argue. That’s why they’ve been reluctant to cancel the ICE contract, despite all the public pressure.

Under the city’s accounting, the jail will run at a $200,000 deficit this fiscal year. That hit would increase to $3 million should the jail close because the city wouldn’t have the federal contract revenue to offset the annual debt payments.

But a closer look at the city’s breakdown reveals an interesting catch to that equation. It effectively counts a $4.6 million “city benefit” as revenue – even though it’s actually a cost.

Here’s why: City officials say $4.6 million is what it would cost to keep the “holding facility” part of the jail open – even if the rest is closed — so police can continue to book arrestees at the jail before transferring them to the county jail. But rather than count this amount as a cost, officials deduct it from the total cost as if it were revenue.

Their rationale for in effect counting the “city benefit” as revenue instead of cost is rooted in the rationale for building the jail in the first place.

Police department spokesman Anthony Bertagna said the holding facility would have to stay open so officers could continue to book arrestees, including those arrested for misdemeanors who would “otherwise be released into the community, thus further enhancing public safety.”

Bertagna’s reasoning reflects the realities of the high-crime 1990s, when the jail was built. At that time the county jail was so full it was turning arrestees away, frustrating city leaders and their tough on crime approach. Plus the county was charging booking fees, giving the city a financial incentive to build its own jail.

Previous Jail Administrator Ann Matulin told Voice of OC in 2013 that the county’s booking fees in the 1990s were so expensive they amounted to the cost of operating a small jail.

But the county ended its practice of charging booking fees long ago, and last week Sheriff’s Dept. spokesman Lt. Mike Stichter said the county would absolutely not charge Santa Ana booking fees should the city jail close.

And the county, Stichter said, doesn’t foresee the county turning away some misdemeanor arrestees. “For the most part, we’re available for anything,” he said.

So, if you count the $4.6 million to keep the booking operation going as what it actually is — a cost — then you have a much different equation when you’re determining whether the jail should stay open.

Here’s the math detailed in the city’s breakdown:

The jail’s operating cost this fiscal year is $19.7 million, which includes the bond payment. Meanwhile, the ICE contract and another agreement with the U.S. Marshall Service to jail detainees are estimated to bring in $14.9 million.

This is normally the step where the city would deduct $4.6 million from the cost for the “city benefit,” but for the reasons stated above, we’re going to skip that part.

So excluding the city benefit, the cost of keeping the jail open is $4.8 million this year – that’s $1.8 million more than what it would cost to close the jail.

But there’s something else to consider. And that is the time officers save by booking at the city jail (which is known as a “fastbook”) versus the county jail. A city-commissioned budget study in 2013 found between 11 and 12 arrestees are booked at the city jail per day, a process that officials say takes only a few minutes.

Former Police Chief Paul Walters – who was chief at the time the city built the jail –said in a previous interview with Voice of OC that any calculation looking at closing the jail would have to factor in the time officers save booking at the city jail. Matulin had said it takes anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour to book at the county jail, and 10 to 15 minutes at the city jail.

Sticther gave similar timeframes, but pegged a booking at 30 minutes on light days. On a really busy night, it could be up to two hours, he said.

But in order for the “city benefit” to save enough money so that it makes financial sense to book at the city jail instead of the county facility, fastbooks would have to save police patrol time worth at least $1.8 million — the difference between what it would cost to close the jail or keep it open.

Assuming the average cost of an officer is about $100,000 annually, the $1.8 million is approximately the cost of 18 officers working for one year – or 37,440 hours of work time.

With only 11 to 12 arrestees a day – each taking 10 minutes – police would spend up to 730 hours a year booking arrestees at the city jail. And even if booking at the county jail took the maximum two hours each time, officers would only spend 8,760 hours a year booking at the county.

So the city at best might save 8,030 hours of police time, far short of what it would take to justify booking at the city jail over the county.

This remains true even if you doubled the cost of a police officer to $200,000. In that case, the city would need to save 18,720 hours worth of police time for it to make sense to book at the city jail.

All this, of course, is back-of-the-napkin accounting. But it’s also food for thought.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

  • David Zenger

    Really, the solution is simple. Get a real accountant to produce an objective financial statement for the jail. Easy. Then you’ll have your answer without any of this voodoo “cost avoidance” BS from people who want to come up with any remotely plausible tale to keep the thing open.

  • LFOldTimer

    The math and assumptions are subject to question. I would like to read a rebuttal from pro-jail side (with their data) before agreeing that shutting down the SA city jail would be a financial net gain for the city. It may very well be accurate. But I need both sides of the story to be sure.

    My questions:

    (1) On an average day how many inmates are housed at the SA city jail? Both Non-ICE and ICE inmates?
    (2) I understand most guards at the SA city jail are lower-paid civilians as opposed to the sworn county guards.
    (3) What is the average compensation of a SA city civilian guard as compared to a sworn county guard?
    (4) The county is willing to book SA city inmates for free? On the county’s dime? Really? Why?
    (5) What would the county charge Santa Ana to house an inmate normally housed at their city jail?
    (6) Crime is on the upswing. If we return to the 1990’s aren’t we back to where we started?
    (7) What does it matter if the ICE holds are housed at SA city jail or a few blocks away?
    (8) Is the primary complaint that Latinos shouldn’t be jailed in a Latino majority community? Really?
    (9) If the problem is ICE why not protest Obama and the Federal government who run the program?
    (10) What is the other argument? That illegal foreigners who commit felonies shouldn’t be deported?
    (11) Do Mexico or Canada allow illegal foreigners convicted of felonies to stay in their countries?
    (12) Do any 1st world nations allow illegal foreigners convicted of felonies to stay in their countries?

    I’m just trying to better understand this controversial topic.

  • InTheKnow

    Why must the author denigrate an otherwise well written and well thought out article on the costs of the jail by giving credence to the arguments of a radical fringe? Government is supposed to work for the good of all the people, not just those who show up at meetings with bandanas on their faces and who shout the loudest. As we all know, the immigration holds are only being placed on those in the country illegally who have committed serious crimes. Is the radical argument that jails should not be located in the areas where the local residents who commit crimes would be held? So there should be no jails in Detroit because the jails may house African Americans who live there and commit a crime? Or no jails in Salt Lake City, Utah because those jails may house numerous Caucasians who live there and commit a crime? To argue that a jail should not be located in a majority Latino area because it may house Latinos who commit crimes is an unsupportable position. Unfortunately, that is just the type of argument that will sway the current Santa Ana city council.