With crowded Riverside County jails on pace to grant early releases to more than 3,000 inmates this year, Sheriff Bob Doyle plans to ask county supervisors to build a massive jail complex designed to expand with the county's population.
"I need 600 beds right now to stop our early releases," Doyle said. "We've got to do something. I don't like it better than anyone else that we have so many inmates walking out early, but it's a result of our growth, and this is a need we've seen coming for years."
The most likely location for the jail is western Riverside County, although that remains undecided, and supervisors were quick to allay expected concerns from residents reluctant to live near one.
Any new jail must be "compatible with the area it goes into," said Supervisor Marion Ashley, adding that the county is "not going to just jam it in."
Supervisor Jeff Stone warned against building a jail "sitting in the backyard of people's homes" and said it might be a better idea to expand an existing jail in a remote desert area. Supervisors Roy Wilson and Bob Buster mentioned industrial areas as potential sites.
Doyle said the site would have to be large enough to accommodate what could ultimately be a 4,500-bed jail -- 700 beds to start -- and should be on county land near a freeway, for easy transport to courts. He said a voter-approved bond measure would probably be needed to pay for most of the facility, which would cost an estimated $52 million as a starting 700-bed facility. He said it could probably be built within two years.
At any one time, the county houses 3,200 inmates at jails in downtown Riverside, near Murrieta, and in Banning, Indio and Blythe. Doyle said the jails are "at or near full capacity" every day.
Though they have not yet received the sheriff's detailed report, members of the Board of Supervisors say they favor action to stem the tide of criminals leaving jail before their sentences are complete.
"The No. 1 job that a supervisor has is to provide for the public safety," Ashley said. "It's our job to support [the sheriff and the district attorney] and provide the means and the facilities they need to carry out their job."
How the county will pay for the new facility has not been determined, but Ashley suggested that some combination of bonds, county reserve funds or state and federal money could help pay for the jail, and Stone said increased county booking fees could offset some construction costs.
Doyle plans to present the proposal to the supervisors at their Sept. 27 meeting.
The early release of inmates and plans for new jail beds have been a recent political flashpoint between Doyle and Stone, a first-term supervisor from Temecula.
Stone has advocated reopening the abandoned Eagle Mountain state prison between Indio and Blythe. At a contentious July board meeting, he also suggested dormitory-style temporary structures or military-type tent cities.
"If we can move people out to a facility like Eagle Mountain, we will free up some of the brick-and-mortar cells.... We could have a prison online, ready to go," Stone said after the meeting. "Heaven forbid one of these early releases causes a heinous crime."
Doyle strongly opposes Stone's plan. The sheriff said the dormitory-style housing at Eagle Mountain would create a dangerous environment for prisoners and guards. During Eagle Mountain's final seven years of operation, riots there resulted in the deaths of three inmates.
"[Stone's] suggestion was a quick fix to a complex problem," Doyle said. "We don't have the type of inmate to put into a communal, dormitory facility."
Local officials say inmate crowding will only worsen as Riverside and San Bernardino counties continue their rapid growth.
Riverside County's population is expected to expand 83% in the next 20 years to 2.8 million; San Bernardino is projected to grow by two-thirds to nearly 2.8 million, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments.
"It's going to be a continuing, ongoing situation," Ashley said. "We're going to have to be constantly siting, planning, processing, financing, building jails" for the next 20 years.
Riverside County's early release of 5.6% of its inmates in 2004 pales in comparison with other Southern California counties. According to the state Department of Corrections, San Bernardino County gave early release to 48.7% of its 77,419 inmates last year; Los Angeles County granted early release to more than 35,000 of its 179,000 inmates, or 19.6%; and Orange County allowed 9.6% of its 65,798 inmates to leave early, before trial or before their sentences expired.
San Bernardino County will reopen a former state prison in Adelanto as a 700-bed jail in January. A spokeswoman for the county Sheriff's Department said the county was determining the potential cost of building another jail. The county's three existing jails have 6,000 beds.