Kings County Sheriff Dave Robinson believes building a bigger jail can lead to fewer people ending up behind bars, and the county and state are going to spend $21 million to find out if he’s right.
When the US Supreme Court ruled in 2011, that intense overcrowding and a wide lack of health services in state prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, California’s lawmakers decided to solve the problem with the Public Safety Realignment Act (PSRA) returning about one-third of the inmates it released back to the counties where they were convicted. It also passed a pair of massive jail construction finance packages that Kings County capitalized on to fund a $41-million, 252-bed expansion of the Kings County Jail scheduled to finish around May of 2016.
A Space Where People Can Help
As soon as that project is complete, work will begin on a second expansion, one that will add 24 more beds, all of them part of a new mental health housing unit. It will also include a day reporting center and space for classes and drug-treatment programs, all in keeping with the other intent of the PSRA, stopping criminals from committing new crimes when they’re released.
“The idea of the project is to create a space where people can help rehabilitate the offenders,” Robinson said.
“The goal is to reduce recidivism through different programs. There’ll be space so we can do anger management classes, addiction counseling.”
The Sheriff’s Department will not be alone in operating the facility, which should be open in 2017. Its partners include Kings County Behavioral Heath Services and the Kings County Probation Department, as well as a host of smaller agencies.
A Change in Thinking
Attempting to address the reasons criminals commit crimes, said Robinson, represents a new way law enforcement is approaching its job.
“I think historically, in the past there was more focus on the punishment, this much time in prison, don’t commit any more crimes,” said Robinson. “The times have definitely changed. We’ve evolved over the years. Where you pay a fine or spend time in jail, now we’re focused on getting people to stop committing those crimes.”
The area where he believes the agencies involved in this new approach can make the greatest impact is in treating drug addiction, removing the motive driving many repeat offenders.
“With the drug problems, methamphetamine, prescription pills, heroin, you have to have that aspect of getting people off drugs,” Robinson said. “There are other reasons, but that’s the biggest cause.”
Following at a close second is mental illness, and the problem is multiplied when the two combine. By treating those two root causes, Robinson believes everyone in the community will benefit.
“When you mix drugs and mental illness, it’s a time-bomb,” he said. “The more we can do to get something started when they come through our doors, the better off we’ll be. Hopefully, we can divert them to a program, or at least find a way they can continue treatment.”
Cutting Crime and the Bottom Line
If the new approach works, it will both reduce the number of people serving time and eliminate the cost of incarcerating them.
Every time a criminal doesn’t have to be locked up, the savings to the county is enormous.
“There’s a large cost value in housing an inmate, $20,000 to $23,000 a year, so obviously there’s a savings for the taxpayer,” Robinson said.
Ironically, that savings could help pay for the jail expansions. While total cost of the two projects is $62 million, Kings County had to put up $9 million of its own money to match state funding. That money will have been well spent if the county’s new way of handling inmates pays off in fewer crimes committed over the long-run.
“The bigger goal is to reduce crime rates,” Robinson said. “The way to do that is to get folks who have committed crimes in the past not to commit crimes in the future.”
Worth the Investment?
There are some who criticize what could be seen as a softer approach to crime, but Robinson says the only way to prove the theory is to test it.
“I tell people come see Kings County in five years, and we’ll see how much of an impact it has,” he said.
And, there’s the human factor to consider. Many of those in jail suffer from drug addiction, mental illness or both, and perhaps they can be redeemed.
“I’m still a cop at heart, I’m all for the death penalty, I’m all for locking up the gang members, but there’s a larger population of people who have mental health and drug issues we can have an impact on,” Robinson said. “Let’s do what we can to turn them around.”
This new take on criminal justice is gaining popularity, and part of the reason may be the realization that no matter how we treat criminals, they will eventually return to live among us once they’ve served their time.
“The more we play this message, the more people will jump on board,” Robinson said. “We tried the whole lock-’em-up, and that sort of worked, but at some time they do get out.”