A file photo of the welcoming sign in Taft, Calif. (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)
Hoping to ensure that Los Angeles County jail inmates convicted of serious crimes serve their full sentences, the Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to a contract for hundreds of prison beds at a San Joaquin Valley lockup.
The $75-million, five-year agreement with the Taft Community Correctional Facility, run by the city of Taft in Kern County, will allow the county to house about 500 long-term inmates there, freeing up beds in L.A. County jails so other inmates will serve a greater portion of their terms.
The move came a week after supervisors agreed to spend more than $25 million to house 500 county inmates at government-run mountain firefighting camps around L.A. County.
Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mark Ridley-Thomas abstained from the vote after voicing concerns that using state funds intended to help counties deal with prison realignment for the Taft contract will divert resources from other programs. Ridley-Thomas also argued that the county hasn't fully explored other ways to reduce crowding, including releasing inmates awaiting trial.
Inmates who will be sent to Taft and the firefighting camps are nonviolent felons who previously would have gone to state prisons. But those lower-level felons are now sentenced to local jail systems under a program known as realignment, which was implemented two years ago to help the state comply with a court order to reduce prison crowding.
That shift has resulted in many other L.A. County inmates, including some convicted of violent crimes, being released after serving a small fraction of their sentences.
With the addition of fire camp and Taft beds, sheriff's officials said that "traditional" county inmates convicted of violent offenses will now serve their full term.
"I know that the general public would like to see these people serve 100% of their time, and what we have with Taft is an opportunity," said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who joined with supervisors Don Knabe and Michael D. Antonovich to approve the proposal.
County officials said they needed to move quickly on the Taft contract because the state of California also was eyeing available beds at the facility. The state announced this week that it has contracted with correctional facilities in Adelanto and McFarland for 1,400 beds.
State Senate Speaker Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) appeared at the county board meeting Tuesday to discuss a proposal by state lawmakers to divert funds to programs that would reduce recidivism as a way to meet a federal court order to reduce prison crowding in California. Federal judges had ordered the state to reduce the prisons' population by 9,600 inmates by the end of the year but on Tuesday agreed to a 30-day extension.
"We have a chance to do something smarter, and take a freight ship that is heading in one expensive and unproductive direction and turn it around," Steinberg said.
Under the legislative plan, some funds directed to the county could be used for such programs as opening more courtrooms dedicated to mentally ill defendants and those with substance abuse issues.
Community activists pressing for alternatives to incarceration objected to the county's plan to send inmates to Taft. They said the shift would create a hardship on family members who will have to travel longer distances to visit relatives in jail.
"I beg you to not just send our boys away in a faraway place," said Ruth Darby, who said her grandson served time in a prison upstate and the family was unable to visit him because of the cost of traveling.
Activists also raised concerns that there had been outbreaks of valley fever at a separate federal prison in Taft.