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Overcrowded Jails Force Sheriff To Create Task Force

San Jose Mercury News via YellowBrix

September 22, 2010

SANTA CRUZ – The local jail system is operating so far beyond capacity that the county plans to launch a new task force this week that’s dedicated to resolving the overcrowding.

County Jail, the main jail facility, was at 117 percent capacity Tuesday – housing 365 inmates though it’s only rated to hold 311 people – and has consistently been past its limit, according to sheriff’s Chief Deputy Jeff Marsh, who oversees the county’s four adult jail facilities.

The Sheriff’s Office, which runs all the adult jail facilities in the county, shuttered the minimum-security portion of the Rountree jail, also known as the Jail Farm, earlier this year because of budget constraints. Marsh said not having that “relief valve” has impacted populations at the jail on Water Street and the medium-security Rountree facility, but doesn’t account for the entire increase in inmates.

So it’s unclear why the jails are so full, but law enforcement leaders are worried the problem could get worse before it gets better.

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Santa Cruz County's main jail facility is bursting at the seams. Photo provided by jail staff with faces blurred. (Contributed photo)

A possible change to state law could lengthen jail terms and a provision of the yet-to-be-approved state budget would mandate that all state prison inmates sentenced to three years or less behind bars serve that time at county jails.

Marsh said that scenario would “kill me.”

Already, the main jail on Water Street is maxed out. Areas designed to be day rooms have been converted to living quarters with bunk beds and “boats,” plastic sled-like beds that are placed wherever there’s open floor space, Marsh said.

“It gets really ugly at that point,” he said.

It also changes services available to inmates because the amount of staff assigned to the jail doesn’t increase with the population rise. There also is more chance of violence among inmates because there are fewer opportunities to house people separately. However, Marsh noted that – so far – they haven’t seen more assaults behind bars.

Marsh said the worst-case scenario is a state audit of the jail system that could lead to a cap on the number of inmates allowed within each facility. That could create a one person in, one person out policy.

“If this trend continues, that’s what we’ll be looking at,” Marsh said.

The Jail Overcrowding Task Force, which meets for the first time Wednesday, will be composed of law enforcement officials as well as staff from the District Attorney’s Office and Public Defenders Office, local judges and other agencies that work in the jail, such as the county’s alcohol and drug program.

The county formed a similar group six years ago when main jail population hovered around 400 inmates, Marsh said. Incarcerations declined with interventions including alternative sentencing options and, for a time, the jail was operating below capacity.


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