Faced with what law enforcement officials described as "crisis-level overcrowding" in local jails, the San Diego City Council and county Board of Supervisors debated a wide range of possible solutions Tuesday but admitted that they lack the funds to effectively alleviate the problem.
Meeting in an unusual joint session, the supervisors and council members pledged to cooperate on plans to expand existing jails and build new ones to meet the burgeoning demand that outstrips the current jails' capacity by more than 50%.
With Supervisor Brian Bilbray exhorting his colleagues to "take a look at concepts that have been unthinkable in the past" to tackle that problem, the elected officials offered ideas that included a possible "sin" tax on alcoholic beverages and cigarettes to finance new jails, expediting jail construction through the use of city- or county-owned sites, using new city police officers to help staff county jails in order to reduce the county's operating costs, and turning over operation of the jails to private firms.
Riddled With Problems
Even the proponents of those proposals, however, admitted that most of them are riddled with practical, legal or political problems. Moreover, with both local governments already confronting stringent budget constraints, the local officials said that, ultimately, funding to meet San Diego's criminal justice needs must be found in Sacramento and Washington.
"We can't write out the check to solve the problem because the fact is that the money simply isn't available in San Diego and never will be," Mayor Maureen O'Connor said, noting that local officials estimate that 6,500 new jail beds costing nearly $500 million will be needed by the year 2005.
Sheriff John Duffy and Police Chief Bill Kolender painted a bleak statistical picture of the state of local jails that served as a backdrop to Tuesday's hearing.
There currently are 2,315 adult detention beds--including jails and honor camps--in San Diego County, but the population in those facilities normally averages 3,640 inmates, or 57% above capacity, county officials said. The overcrowding is worst in county jails, where there are 1,689 beds but an average daily inmate population of about 3,100, producing an 83% overcrowding figure.
As a result, the sheriff recently began releasing individuals arrested on misdemeanors who otherwise would have been jailed pending arraignment or posting bail.
Although Tuesday's meeting produced little other than resolutions to pursue remedies--and, in particular, state and federal funds--to address the jail overcrowding problem, Bilbray and other supervisors said they were encouraged by the City Council members' spirit of cooperation in dealing with what is, legally, a county responsibility.