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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Schwarzenegger Proposal Could Burden Underfunded S.F. Jails

Posted By on Thu, May 21, 2009 at 3:45 PM

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This week has seen California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger scrounging for a few billion dollars beneath the sofa cushions after his stop-gap measures for narrowing the state's budget shortfall went down to defeat in Tuesday's special election. Among the consequences of the election results, which necessitate immediate cuts to state services across the board, could be the release of up to 40,000 inmates from California prisons. Schwarzenegger has proposed transferring some 23,000 of them to county jails to save money.

If the Governator goes ahead with this plan, will San Francisco County jails be ready? The short answer is that officials at the sheriff's department, which oversees the jail system, don't know yet. Eileen Hirst, chief of staff for Sheriff Michael Hennessey, said that while the jails have open beds right now, they lack the necessary amenities for the convicts who would occupy them: Deputies to stand guard, food to sustain them, the collected works of Anthony Trollope -- you get the picture. In fact, the jails are already holding more people than they were given money for.

"At this point we are over our funded capacity by a small amount," Hirst said. "But in terms of the physical plant, how many beds we have set up, we are at about 90 percent of capacity." Hirst said the county's jails can fit up to 2,412 people and currently have 2,150 -- including roughly 300 inmates who don't occupy beds but serve in community or work programs, consuming scarce resources.

Hirst said it would be "premature" to comment on the governor's

proposal before the sheriff's department hears some details, such as

how many inmates would be shipped into the system and what, if any,

reimbursement the state would provide for housing them. But given that

conventional wisdom frowns upon the risks of operating a 100-percent

full jail -- the tighter space gets, Hirst said, the harder it is to

avoid volatile situations in which, say, a drunk driver is thrown in a

cell with a suspected killer -- it seems that San Francisco has little to gain and much to lose from this particular result

of California's fiscal meltdown.

Photo by publik15.

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Peter Jamison


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