Calif. county loses out to another on jail grant to improve facility

Contra Costa has lost out on an $80 million state grant to improve jail services, but county officials can't lay the blame completely on city of Richmond leaders who fought the plan

By Matthew Artz
Contra Costa Times

MARTINEZ — Contra Costa has lost out on an $80 million state grant to improve jail services, but county officials can't lay the blame completely on city of Richmond leaders who fought the plan.

Siding with anti-incarceration activists, Richmond filed a lawsuit in September challenging Contra Costa's environmental analysis for expanding the West County Detention Center, which is located in the city. County leaders said the legal action had cost the county 12 key points on the state's grading scale dropping it from second place, where it would have received funding, to seventh.

San Francisco and Santa Clara each were recommended for $80 million grants. With Contra Costa dropping out of contention, the final $80 million is recommended to be split between Alameda and Ventura counties. A final vote to approve the grants is scheduled for later this month.

"Richmond got what they wanted; they killed the grant," Supervisor Karen Mitchoff said after being briefed this week by county officials.

But, it turns out that the county had already disqualified itself from receiving those 12 points by not having its environmental impact report completed on time. Under rules set forth by the Board of State and Community Corrections, the county was required to have a Notice of Determination for the lengthy environmental analysis filed by August 11. It was filed on Aug. 19.

While the Richmond lawsuit could have impacted the county's application, it was a "moot" point, the state board's spokeswoman Tracie Cone said in an email. "The county did not meet the ... deadline. Nothing else was considered."

County Administrator David Twa did not respond to requests for comment. Assistant Sheriff Matt Schuler said state officials told the Sheriff's office that it lost the points because it couldn't resolve the Richmond lawsuit. "We weren't told that it was too late," he said.

Contra Costa will now be hard pressed to relieve overcrowding in its Martinez jail. The grant program is the third and, quite possibly, final round of funding for county jails in the aftermath of a state policy to relieve overcrowding at state prisons by housing more lower-level offenders in county facilities.

Contra Costa also failed to win a previous grant application.

This round of funding centered primarily on improving programming for inmates, especially for inmates with mental health issues.

Sheriff David Livingston proposed building a high-security wing at the West County Detention Center that would house 416 inmates, and provide them with access to job training, mental health counseling, education programs and a visiting center for their families. The new center would then allow the county to reduce overcrowding at the Martinez jail, which lacks programming space.

The proposal was backed by mental health advocates but came under fire from political and community leaders in Richmond, who questioned whether the county would ever fund the new programs and wanted less money invested in jails and more in community-based programs for offenders.

"I think we could have achieved that if the Sheriff's Office was willing to work with us," Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said. "It could have been a win-win," he said. "Instead it's a big fat zero."

Teresa Pasquini, who previously chaired Contra Costa's Mental Health Commission, said she and other mental health advocates will ask the state to reconsider Contra Costa's application.

"Technicalities and politics should not prevent our county from receiving funds to fix potential human rights violations," she said.

While Contra Costa had a bitter fight over its jail grant application, Alameda County supervisors never publicly debated its $54.3 million proposal to upgrade two units for mentally ill prisoners.

Several Alameda supervisors did not return calls for comment Thursday as anti-incarceration activists mount an effort to get them to rescind the grant.

"The Sheriff's Office has not been transparent about this at all," said Tash Nguyen of the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern said the grant will help mentally ill inmates and that his office kept the grant proposal under wraps to prevent other counties from seeing it.

"If they looked at our grant and they decided they forgot to look at some element that we had, they could put it in their proposal," he said.

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