The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to seek $80 million in state funding to expand the James L. Musick jail between Irvine and Lake Forest, as city officials gear up for a lawsuit over the issue.
The request for grant money to fund 384 new “rehabilitation beds” comes as the state, to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, shifts more and more responsibility for new inmates onto counties.
Irvine Mayor Steven Choi told supervisors that he and his City Council colleagues are “troubled” by the expansion plans, noting a pending lawsuit over environmental impacts that Irvine claims haven’t been studied.
Irvine “urges the county to consider, analyze [and] mitigate the impact of those changes at both the policy and the environmental review level,” said Choi.
He explained that Musick lies beside the Orange County Great Park, which is surrounded by a planned neighborhood of about 5,000 homes that could grow to 9,500.
Irvine officials have also raised questions about whether this is just a first step to expanding the facility to house even more inmates.
To ease those concerns, Supervisor Todd Spitzer tried to insert language into the county’s approvals to “make it unequivocally clear that this is limited” to 384 beds.
While Spitzer was ultimately successful in adding the language in some areas, supervisors didn’t approve the changes in other areas due to concerns that it could put the county’s grant application at risk.
“I worry. The state doesn’t love us as much as I wish they did,” said Chairman Shawn Nelson. “It just seems like they’re looking for reasons to not favor us, and I don’t want to give them one.”
Because the Theo Lacy jail in Orange cannot be enlarged and the central jails in Santa Ana are taking bookings from across the county, there’s no opportunity to expand other than at Musick, Spitzer said.
“There’s a ‘what are we going to do with these people’ issue,” he said.
If the county gets the funding, the expansion is expected to start housing inmates in late 2019 or 2020. Divided evenly, the construction funding comes out to about $200,000 per inmate.
The funds are part of Senate Bill 1022, which set up a $500-million fund for which counties can compete for funding of new jail facilities that provide space for treatment and rehabilitation.
The bill reserves $240 million for large counties, with each county eligible for up to $80 million in funds. That likely means that Orange County is competing for what would ultimately be grants to three large counties, officials said.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that California’s prisons were so overcrowded they caused “needless suffering and death.” Justices ordered the prisoner population reduced by more than 30,000.
On top of that, a federal court recently ordered the state to drop its prisoner population by another 10,000 by the end of this year.
This has led to a major shift in the criminal justice system, with a new emphasis on trying to treat the underlying issues such as drug addiction and mental illness that contribute to people repeatedly committing crimes.
“Corrections, as we all know, has taken a dramatic turn in the state of California,” said Spitzer. “The fact of the matter is, with [a] 70-percent recidivism rate, we’re doing something wrong.”
Spitzer said he’s concerned that reducing jail populations is pushing so-called “low level” offenders, such as those convicted of drunk driving or committed assault, are being pushed onto the streets.
County officials say the new rehabilitation programs will involve social workers, medical experts and nonprofit and religious groups.
The state, however, isn’t setting a standard for how to track the new approach’s success, county officials said.
County officials expect the proposed expansion to cost $17 million per year to operate, though it was unclear from Tuesday’s meeting where that money would be found.
Supervisor John Moorlach noted that without a new funding stream, any additional costs for the Sheriff’s Department are likely to come from other departments.
The county expects to learn in January whether they were chosen for a grant, with project approval coming to supervisors for approval next July.