Across the country states and municipalities are expanding prison/jail capacity even as crime is falling and prison populations are declining. In California, a 2011 Supreme Court ruling has resulted in a shift of non-violent offenders from state prisons to county jails.
A preliminary report on the status of crimes released by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in February, showed overall crime in the county was down by 2.2 percent, violent crime was down by 8.8 percent and property crimes fell by 1.6 percent from 2016.
In late September, the FBI confirmed a nationwide trend in crime reduction reporting the estimated number of violent and property crimes fell in 2017 after two years of gains. The FBI statistics are part of the agency’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program which collects data from 16,655 city, county, college, state, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies.
When the report was released, Ames Grawert, Senior Counsel at the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice stated, “Crime declined nationwide last year, consistent with our earlier analyses of 2017 data in the nation’s 30 largest cities. That’s good news,” she said but quickly added, “The bad news is that even while crime is falling, the number of Americans incarcerated remains near-record highs. Now is the time to address the problem.”
The high rate of incarceration was not the driving issue for Riverside County. They focused instead on the issue of prison overcrowding. This led to the project to expand the Indio jail at a cost of $330 million that has since grown to $340 million and is way over schedule for completion—the expanded facility will not open this year as initially promised. New projections are the facility will not be completed until Spring 2019, more than a year and three months behind its original schedule.
When the 1,626-bed John J. Benoit Detention Center was initially considered in 2012 through 2014, it was sold based on the need to help relieve the overcrowding conditions that existed at that time. County officials viewed the expansion as an appropriate response to a federal court order that required the county to release inmates when no beds were available; and as a result, by 2015, more than 28,000 inmates had benefited from the early release option.
Although the county initially received a $100 million-dollar grant to expand the Indio facility the rest of the funding is being provided through the sale of bonds.
Today, as the nation moves closer to criminal justice reform, critics of mass incarceration question whether such continued multi-million-dollar taxpayer investments in jail/prison expansions are warranted.
There is currently a dispute between the contractor, Clark Construction Group-California LLP, and the County of Riverside over the Indio jail facility. The contractor has claimed the work is slowed as a result of the county’s structural design documents. County spokesman Ray Smith told the Southern California News Group the contractor has claimed the documents were vaguely defined and required more work.
Depending on how this dispute is resolved, the price tag on the project could rise even higher. And this is only one of the issues county officials face regarding the jail expansion.
The other elephant in the room is whether the county has the funding needed to adequately train and staff the facility. Outgoing Sheriff Stan Sniff repeatedly warned about funding concerns related to staffing the facility when it does open its doors.