STANISLAUS COUNTY — Stanislaus County leaders approved designs Tuesday for a major jail expansion despite questions about how the county will pay for the daily costs of housing and feeding a larger inmate population.
Stanislaus is forging ahead with the $89.5 million expansion at the Hackett Road complex to incarcerate low-level offenders who are now the county's responsibility because of public safety realignment in California.
Other counties have turned down the state construction funding or are considering less costly jails.
Supervisor Terry Withrow was concerned the new jail facility, with up to 552 beds, will become a drain on county resources, taking local funding away from other purposes. It's expected to cost the county an additional $7.7 million a year just for the 72 new deputies to watch the inmates.
"I was hoping you could pull me off the cliff," Withrow said. "Tell me we will be OK here."
County staff said the project provides the best bang for the buck and deals with liability issues that dogged the state prison system.
The plans, approved on a 5-0 vote, call for a locked facility with up to 480 maximum-security beds and 72 beds for inmates with medical problems or mental health needs. A separate building will house a day reporting center for people on probation, as well as classrooms for rehabilitation and treatment programs.
The initial plans had 384 jail beds in the maximum-security units, but architects believe it's possible to increase the units by 96 beds without going over budget.
County officials foresee budget problems when the project is completed in the second half of 2016. Sheriff Adam Christianson said the facilities could open in phases as operational funding is available. Or the county could close the antiquated 396-bed jail in downtown Modesto and move personnel to the Hackett Road center.
Supervisor Bill O'Brien said the county should stay focused on adding jail capacity to ensure a safer community. The expansion will push the county's jail capacity to about 1,800 beds, which is 300 more than in 2007. With the current 1,226 jail beds, the Sheriff's Department is forced to release dangerous people who should be serving time behind bars, officials said.
"It's up to the board to figure out how to finance the operations," O'Brien said. "If we stay focused on additional jail beds, it will be better for the community."
Supervisor Jim DeMartini said the county needs to consider the costs to the community when criminals remain on the streets to steal and commit other offenses.
The state will cover $80 million of the project through lease revenue bonds. The county has committed $9.5 million in local funds.
The Record newspaper in Stockton reported in June that San Joaquin County scuttled a 1,280-bed jail expansion that was expected to cost $70 million a year to operate. One Bay Area county has explored low-cost modular jail buildings.
Christianson said that using cheaper facilities could subject the county to liability. He predicted the prison reform lawyers who filed lawsuits over conditions in state prisons will be watching how counties manage inmates.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.