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Contra Costa tables controversial jail expansion

on September 7, 2012

Contra Costa officials announced at an emotionally-charged meeting Thursday morning that they would postpone a decision to build more jail beds and instead look into alternative solutions to reduce prison populations, a move that was applauded by Richmond residents, nonprofits, faith leaders, and government groups.

Buses drove Richmond leaders and residents to the meeting at the county probation department in Martinez early Thursday morning. At the meeting, public attendants held signs stating “Invest in people, not prisons” and “Stop honoring ICE holds — keep families united.”

“This has been an extraordinary meeting, and I hope everyone realizes what a tribute to democracy this whole process has been,” said State Senator Loni Hancock, according to a press release issued by CCISCO. “I am in awe of you guys, I’m in awe of this community and the testimony you’ve given.”

The decision made by the Community Corrections Partnership, a seven-member group overseeing $19 million in prison realignment funds from the state, sent a wave of encouragement to the crowd numbering close to 100 who attended the meeting.

“It’s a great example of elected officials really, truly listening to the voice of the community and responding,” said Adam Kruggel, executive director of Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO).

After hearing widespread opposition from the community, County Sheriff David Livingston offered to table his proposal to build a 150-bed dormitory at the West County Detention Facility in Richmond. He asked for funds to be earmarked and to reevaluate the proposal in six months.

“That was just a major shift in the counties priorities and how they were going to implement realignment,” said Eli Moore, program director for the Pacific Institute.

A subcommittee will be formed to review proposals and develop an operations plan that will outline needed services, budget details, and install evaluation elements. Bail reform and a one-stop center for services to support recently released prisoners are among the items the subcommittee will investigate.

“Some people, they lose hope when nothing is in place,” said Andres Abarra, who sits on the community advisory board and has provided input for Contra Costa’s realignment. “As we speak, there are people being released that don’t have a place to stay.”

County leaders and citizens opposed to jail expansion see these alternative solutions as addressing the heart of the problem — crowded prisons and high recidivism rates. Surveys conducted by the Pacific Institute revealed that some 80 percent of formerly incarcerated Richmond residents are unemployed and that seven out of ten don’t have “stable housing.”

“Every step of the way, there’s never been a single person who has spoken in favor of the jail,” Kruggel said. “I’ve never seen this kind of clear consensus in the community that we have to do something different.”

The green light to evaluate alternative services, however, is just the beginning. It will likely still be several months before anything is implemented on the ground. And those who attended Thursday’s meeting know there’s a lot of work to do.

“In the meantime, the inmates continue to come into my custody,” Livingston said. “I have a responsibility to safely house the inmates. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”



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