Wednesday, February 20, 2008

If You Build It...

I need to go on record about something. I used to work in a county that had recently built a new jail facility. What I noticed was that people were doing real jail time for a variety of the least serious crimes (the most noteworthy being "Driving on a Suspended Licensed"). People with priors were being thrown by red-faced judges into jail for lengthy stints in actual jail. Also, the equivalent of the most common jail alternative, the Sheriff's Work Alternative Program (SWAP), which was called "Work Release", had a couple of special rules that prevented many defendants from entering the program. For example, if the defendant had ever been arrested for resisting arrest (not necessarily convicted, just arrested), then into jail they went; no jail alternatives. Also, if the defendant was serving a sentence for any act of domestic violence, no work program; just jail. I predict the same will happen in Santa Barbara. Yes, there is a jail over crowding program, but the severity of it is debatable. Moreover, if the prevention programs that are supposed to tied to the program are effective, then that too should lessen the inmate population.

Now I don't doubt the sincerity of Sheriff Bill Brown, in his quest for a new jail facility, for a minute. But asking a sheriff whether jails are a good thing is kind of like asking a queen bee whether hives are a good thing. As Max Weber pointed out, bureaucracies must grow; that is what they do. They don't necessarily intend to grow, but growing brings so many collateral benefits to the individual actors, that they do so naturally and instinctively. They draw more funding, more employees, and sooner or later they are bigger of a big shot, and are making a bigger salary with a better retirement.

I have another prediction. The so-called anti-recidivism and other prevention programming that are NOW tied to the new jail proposal are going to fall by the wayside in the name of fiscal responsibility. The true purpose of the money now being sought from the County, directly from the taxpayers, and the State, is to build a new jail facility, not to trump years of budget cuts of social welfare. It sounds great, of course, to increase spending on mental health programs, homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation, etc. However, it will be easy to dump these as "pie in the sky", and generally unsatisfying expenditures that we just can't afford. The success of these programs is hard measure. The success of a jail, however, is easy to measure. If it's full of inmates; it must be working!

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