Los Angeles County supervisors agreed Tuesday to a contract that officials say will ensure that the most serious county jail inmates serve their full terms.
The $75-million, five-year agreement with the Taft Community Correctional Facility run by the city of Taft in Kern County, will allow the county to house approximately 500 long-term inmates at the lockup, freeing up beds in Los Angeles County jails so that other inmates will serve a greater portion of their sentences.
The move follows a contract approved by supervisors last week with the state department of corrections that will send 500 other county inmates to government-run mountain firefighting camps around Los Angeles County.
Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mark Ridley-Thomas abstained from the vote after voicing concerns that using state funds for the Taft contract will divert resources from other programs. Ridley-Thomas also argued that the county hasn't fully explored other ways to reduce crowding, including releasing inmates awaiting trial.
Inmates sent to Taft and the firefighting camps are nonviolent felons who would have gone to state prisons prior to realignment, a program implemented two years ago to help the state comply with a court order to reduce prison crowding.
Lower-level felons now are sentenced to local jail systems and make up close to one-third of Los Angeles County's jail population. That has resulted in many other county inmates, including those convicted of violent crimes, being released after serving a small fraction of their sentences.
With the addition of fire camp and Taft beds, sheriff's officials said that "traditional" county inmates convicted of violent offenses will now serve their full term.
"I know that the general public would like to see these people serve 100% of their time, and what we have with Taft is an opportunity," Supervisor Gloria Molina said.
County officials said there was a need to move on the Taft contract now because the state of California also was eyeing available beds at the facility. Dana Simas, a spokeswoman with the state department of corrections, said she could not comment on any ongoing negotiations.
The state did announce this week that it has contracted with correctional facilities in Adelanto and McFarland for 1,400 beds.
State Senate Speaker Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) appeared at the county board meeting Tuesday to discuss a proposal by state leaders to divert funds to programs that would reduce recidivism rather than send inmates to out-of-state lockups to reduce prison crowding. That plan is contingent on approval of a panel of federal judges.
"We have a chance to do something smarter and take a freight ship that is heading in one expensive and unproductive direction and turn it around," Steinberg said.
Under the leglaslative plan, some funds directed to the county could be used for such programs as opening courtrooms for mentally ill defendants and those with substance abuse issues.
Community activists pressing for alternatives to incarceration objected to the county’s plan to send inmates to Taft. They said the shift would create a hardship on family members who will have to travel farther to visit relatives in jail.
"I beg you to not just send our boys away in a far-away place," said Ruth Darby, who said her own grandson had served time in a prison upstate, and the family was unable to visit him because of the cost of traveling.
Activists also raised concerns that there had been outbreaks of valley fever at a federal prison in Taft.
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