John Benoit Detention Center—Looking Back to Look Forward

John Benoit Detention Center—Looking Back to Look Forward

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Steve Jobs

At the same time the Riverside County Board of Supervisors worked aggressively to prepare the county for a rapid-Phase 2 reopening, like most leaders around the country they were simultaneously preparing for the future as well, which includes projecting a significant budget shortfall in the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Kudos to the supervisors for being the forward thinking, economic leaders they are expected to be. Though it’s been barely a year since May 2019, when the Board agonized over dipping into the county’s reserves to offset a budget shortfall. This year the county faces an even greater deficit estimated to be approximately $100 million of course this number could increase as the future impact of COVID-19 remains unknown.

After ending the 2019 fiscal year with a $22 million dollar shortfall the county’s leaders now seem prepared and all too willing to blame all of this year’s fiscal misfortunes on the impact of COVID-19. But, should they?

I am among the critics who say the county was already more than halfway to the $100 million deficit even before the virus struck, when you consider the $22 million fiscal gap from 2019 and then marry those dollars to county officials’ penchant to continue throwing money at the $336 million-boondoggle-of-a-prison sitting like a  dystopian-out-of-place structure along Highway 111 in Indio.

The original bid for the project’s construction was about $279 million. It is now two years passed its completion date and $57 million dollars over budget. The John Benoit Detention Center now represents one of most questionable and senseless misuse of taxpayer dollars in the county’s history. And, I feel fair saying this because in the beginning it was touted as the largest construction undertaking in the county’s history. 

The question in relation to this project of course is, ‘Why do the supervisors continue to throw good money after bad,’ as the old folks—of which I am part of—would say. Especially when the Attorney General’s report published last July shows most property and violent crime in the state have continued to decline.

Acknowledging a moderate uptick in some crime categories here in Riverside County, the idea of continuing to throw millions of tax-payer dollars into a project of no value seems corrupt. Especially when you question who will benefit from its completion? Certainly, not the taxpayers.

Here is the truth, in nearly every crime category tracked by the California Department of Justice—except for rape cases— people are committing fewer crimes per capita today than a decade ago in California.

In Riverside County like elsewhere in the state, rape cases are up in this regard largely because the definition of rape was broadened and now also includes men; and also in the wake of the #MeToo movement people appear more willing to report their attacks to police. 

Although robberies in the county were slightly up in 2015, they have leveled off in recent years and remain basically flat. Homicides in the county increased slightly from 81 in 2017 to 94 in 2018, however they remain far from their high of 166 in 1994. And robberies in the county were down by four percent in 2018 compared to 2017.

Riverside County residents should not believe the hype of prison advocates who continue pushing for completion of the Benoit facility at all costs; or, be paralyzed by the fear of some fictitious Black or Brown boogeyman that may at some point in a not yet realized future need to be locked away in a dark chamber along Highway 111 in Indio. That is not the future most Riverside residents envision for this county.

We all know if the facility is completed, the county will have to fill it with bodies to assure it does not become a continuous drain on its budget in future years. It does not take much imagination to visualize who will fill the cells. 

Although these are difficult days, Riverside County residents, like the rest of America, are looking to a brighter tomorrow. One of the ways leaders can help mitigate the economic damage projected for the county to date, as well as what may be coming in the immediate future, is to make fiscal decisions based on good sound logic, judgement and most importantly–data.

In a way I can understand the supervisors’ desire to pay homage to their former peer, the now deceased John Benoit for whom the Indio facility is named. The county however has already spent $336 million in an homage to his memory. Isn’t it time for county taxpayers to say—enough?

Supervisors instead should look to building a brighter tomorrow by cutting its losses in relation to this unnecessary project and instead, redirect any future funding to building a new and better tomorrow. 

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.

About The Author

S.E. Williams

Stephanie E. Williams is an award winning investigative reporter, editor and activist who has contributed to several Inland Empire publications. Williams spent more than thirty years as a middle-manager in the telecommunications industry before retiring to pursue her passion as a reporter and non-fiction writer. Beyond writing, Williams’ personal interests include stone-carving, drumming and sculpting.

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