The battle of Santee vs. the County Jail continues, and Santee appears to have won the latest skirmish. But at what price for the county as a whole?
The developing East County city gained some leverage recently when it was granted control of sewer permits for a 600-bed men's jail that the county wants to build on the grounds of the Las Colinas County Jail for women.
Winning that control may have been a clever political maneuver by the Santee City Council on behalf of its residents. But it does not serve the greater needs of the county to house a jail population bursting at the seams.
The county's land is adjacent to Santee's embryonic Town Center development, and city officials are understandably worried about being able to persuade business owners to build next to what could become a 1,000-inmate complex.
But last week the six county jails housed 3,257 inmates, 67% more than their state-rated capacity. Inmates sleep on the floor and in common areas, jeopardizing the safety of inmates and guards, county jailers say.
The courts have agreed. The central jail is under a court order to keep its population to 750, and a lawsuit was filed recently by the ACLU and the Legal Aid Society of San Diego to get the courts to address the overcrowding at the other jails.
What's more, the overcrowding will get worse before it gets better, if a short-term solution is not found. The County Jail in Vista will be closed next March for expansion and remodeling, which means that its more than 400 inmates will have to be housed elsewhere.
County officials and the Board of Supervisors have grappled with the overcrowding problem repeatedly--and, we think, conscientiously.
Jail capacity has been expanded by putting two inmates in each cell, a tacitly accepted violation of state standards. At the same time, steps have been taken to reduce the population by putting some nonviolent offenders in work-furlough programs or honor farms and returning parole violators to state prisons faster. Tougher moves included cutting nearly $7 million from other county programs to fund jail construction, and shepherding a bill through the state Legislature to allow a simple majority of county voters to approve a sales-tax increase for jails, after a two-thirds vote proposition failed.
Longer-term solutions include plans for an 850-bed jail at East Mesa in South County, a 200-bed expansion of the women's jail, and the addition of nearly 600 beds at the Vista jail next year.
But a short-term solution is needed. The Board of Supervisors says adding temporary buildings to house 600 men in Santee on the grounds of the Las Colinas facility is the best answer. Santee does not agree. City officials say that Santee has done its share and they are skeptical of the county's "intention" to end the "temporary" arrangement.
Nonetheless, the Santee solution appears to be the best available within the time frame.
Both sides should yield some ground. The region's urgent need for jail space supersedes Santee's concerns for the moment. But Santee is justified in expecting a firm commitment for the removal of the temporary buildings so that it can assure potential Town Center tenants. The sewer permits could be used to negotiate such a deadline.
Meanwhile, the county needs to continue its quest for long-term solutions, including alternatives to incarceration of certain offenders. The recent vote by the supervisors to explore the possibility of a privately run, medium-security jail is a move in the right direction.