For a bigger, better jail
City Council gets on board with county’s plan to pay for new jail
Nobody argued over whether Butte County needs a new jail, given that the existing one has been pushing capacity and releasing inmates prematurely for years. What divided opinions on the Chico City Council on Tuesday (May 5) was how to pay for it.
At a council meeting in March, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea outlined the situation at the county’s 614-bed jail, which was built in 1963 and expanded in 1994. The facility wasn’t designed with long prison sentences in mind, but now, under AB 109—the Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011—many serious offenders who previously would have served their sentences in state prisons do so in county jails. “It was never contemplated that we’d hold the kind of criminals we do now,” Honea said.
Meanwhile, a court-ordered jail population cap that’s been in place since the 1970s, coupled with realignment, has forced the jail to make hard decisions on which inmates to release prior to serving their full sentences. As a result, the Sheriff’s Office has taken proactive measures such as developing an alternative custody program—essentially house arrest with a GPS ankle bracelet and an emphasis on offender rehabilitation—that has translated to great successes that could be replicated inside the jail, Honea said. That is, if it had more than one classroom, a converted supply closet in which it’s impossible to regularly engage nearly 600 inmates.
The expanded jail, then, would have 750 beds and more space for programs aimed at reducing recidivism and accommodating mental health needs, said Sheriff’s Lt. Jarrod Agurkis. He and Deputy Administrative Officer Jennifer McCarthy came before the council on Tuesday in Honea’s absence.
“It isn’t a bigger and badder jail; it’s a bigger and better jail that will help solve so many problems we have on the streets,” said Councilman Randall Stone.
Honea is seeking $40 million in grant funding for the project. In order to secure the grant, the county must match $4 million. The funding mechanism under the proposed 10-year agreement would be a countywide jail impact fee that cities would collect from developers of new housing projects. (The fee has been collected in unincorporated areas since 2007, but not within the limits of any city in the county.)
And there’s the rub. McCarthy said the impact-fee model is tied specifically to population growth and mitigates the additional demand new development places on public facilities—like jails.
But Pat Conroy, representing a group of local builders, doesn’t believe there’s a strong connection between the families who purchase new homes in Chico and the county’s overburdened jail.
“Do you think they are really contributing to crime? I don’t see how you can relate that to the working man,” he said.
Conroy spoke further against tacking on yet another fee he’d have to justify to new home buyers. (The fees would be $455 for single-family homes, $363 per multifamily housing unit and $372 for mobile homes.) More substantial impact fees directed toward Chico’s schools, roads, parks and transportation already typically exceed a total of $20,000, he said. “I have to go through this list and explain to them why they have to pay $25,000 before they can even put a shovel in the ground.”
Vice Mayor Sean Morgan and Councilmembers Reanette Fillmer and Andrew Coolidge shared Conroy’s concerns.
“We’re faced with making new housing, which is a very small niche, more expensive,” Morgan said. “I believe we need the new jail, I want the new jail, but the cost needs to be borne by a greater and more diverse group of people. … The entire city, the entire county is going to benefit.”
Ultimately, the council voted 4-3 to approve the impact fee structure with Morgan, Fillmer and Coolidge dissenting and Mayor Mark Sorensen casting the deciding vote. But the Sheriff’s Office isn’t done yet. The 10-year agreement would kick in only if all of the county’s municipalities get on board; Paradise and Oroville already have, while Gridley and Biggs have yet to decide.