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

In the early 1990s during a violent crime wave that had reached epidemic proportions, the Santa Ana City Council approved construction of an estimated $82-million jail to house the seemingly endless stream of offenders that police were arresting on the city’s streets.

Yet as the jail was being built in the Civic Center, crime in the city began to decrease significantly. From 1994, when construction approvals were granted, to 1997, when the jail officially opened, violent crime in Santa Ana dropped by 36 percent, according to FBI statistics. And it has continued to drop.

Today, the edifice built to clean up Santa Ana’s streets takes in few, if any, city residents. It has instead become a holding facility for federal marshal’s prisoners and immigration detainees rounded up by federal immigration officers.

And even though the federal government pays the city to house the detainees, the jail is a financial albatross for the city, operating at a loss of as much as $7 million each year. Its debt service alone is roughly equal to the city’s library budget.

“Things have changed. It’s been a number of years, and we’re in a different place,” Interim City Manager Kevin O’Rourke acknowledged at a recent budget study session.

According to FBI uniform crime reporting statistics, violent crimes in the city skyrocketed in the 1980s and early 1990s, hitting a peak of 1,102.5 violent crimes per 100,000 residents in 1991.

The jump in crime put a particular strain on the Orange County Jail in downtown Santa Ana. The jail became so overcrowded during that era that it stopped taking misdemeanor offenders, city officials say, leaving police officers no choice but to cite and release them.

The result was community disillusion and low morale among police officers, who saw no reason to arrest someone who wouldn’t go to jail or even show up to court, according to former Police Chief Paul Walters.

“When criminals were brought in and then the criminals were dropped back off, the residents thought we were corrupt, that the cops were being bought off,” Walters said. “What are you supposed to do? Well, we built a jail.”

But evolving demographics, a booming economy in the late 1990s and the ebbing of the crack epidemic that had gripped the nation in the late 1980s changed that dynamic. Santa Ana’s violent crime rate between 1994 and 2010 had dropped 56 percent, FBI statistics show.

The city’s property crimes dropped even more dramatically, seeing a 77 percent reduction between 1985 and 2010.

The 2008-2009 Orange County grand jury, which is required to study jail conditions, reported that for various reasons there was “no evidence of overcrowding through the entire Orange County jail system,” a finding that came as a “surprise” because of consistent findings of past overcrowding, the grand jury noted.

Beyond the jail’s drain on the budget, the fact that it has become an immigration holding tank has become an increasingly sore spot for the city’s largely Latino population. At last week’s City Council meeting, Orange County May Day Coalition activists castigated city officials for jailing undocumented immigrants on behalf of the federal government and called for an end to the contract.

“The federal immigration model does not fit the current era,” said Scott Sink, an organizer for the coalition of Latino rights groups and labor unions. “Santa Ana is taking advantage of these outdated policies in order to raise additional revenues by identifying, holding and ultimately deporting local residents.”

By charging $82 per day per detainee, the city recoups some but not all of its expenses. A jail revenue and expense sheet provided by the city shows that the jail’s expenses have exceeded its revenues by a total of at least $19.7 million since it opened in 1997.

But city leaders acknowledge that even this calculation falls short of the jail’s true cost to the city. O’Rourke said officials are tabulating indirect costs of the jail, such as the estimated one-third share of this fiscal year’s $9-million debt service payment on the police administration building.

A city consultant has told O’Rourke that the jail costs the city between $2 million and $7 million more than it brings in each year, O’Rourke said.

The jail’s burden on the general fund popped up during a council budget study session this week. Council members vowed to tackle the issue but to keep in mind the more than 110 city employees who work at the jail.

“If the jail is at a deficit, we need to address it. At the end of the day we also have a responsibility to our taxpayers,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez.

City officials say they are exploring options, including possible outsourcing of jail operations to a private company. Yet Walters says he has been informed that outsourcing would actually be more expensive because the city would still shoulder the jail’s liability costs, which would rise significantly under a private company looking to cut corners, according to Walters.

One possible option would be to close some areas of the jail so that revenue from bed rentals to the federal government match expenses, O’Rourke said. But he cautioned that the city is moving into uncharted territory, so the options for now are unclear.

Councilman David Benavides, meanwhile, has asked that the council’s public safety committee review the federal contract, an issue that will likely be problematic as city leaders consider ways to cut jail costs.

At the extreme end of the options range, the city could simply shut down the jail.

Jail Administrator Ann Matulin argued that would be a mistake. While the jail may not be needed today, circumstances could easily change, she said, and reopening the jail would be very expensive.

Matulin points to state policies such as realignment of the prison system — a plan that includes sending state prisoners to county jails — as having the potential to overcrowd the county jail once again. According to the Los Angeles Times, state prisons have reduced their inmate population by 43,000, mainly shifting the burden of new prisoners onto counties.

Former Jail Administrator Russ Davis predicted that the city jail will be needed again in as soon as a few years, so closing the jail would be unwise. “What are you going to do three to four years form now when you need it again?” he said.

The county could also decide to resume charging booking fees, Matulin said. In that case, the city would keep booking costs low by dividing the jail’s beds between arrestees and rentals for federal detainees. “They were paying almost what it costs to operate a smaller jail,” Matulin said of the county’s booking fees.

Then there’s the police department’s “fast-books,” which has police officers booking arrestees at the city jail, then walking them through an underground tunnel to the county jail. Fast-books, which Matulin says take only several minutes, save police officers time by circumventing the booking process at the county jail, which police officials say can take hours during peak times.

Factoring in time saved from fast-books would have to go into any analysis of the jail’s impacts on the city budget, Walters and other police officials say.

“I believe there is a real value to the jail in the mission of the police,” Matulin said.

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