Amid budget crisis, Alameda County supervisors approve sheriff's $318M budget request for Santa Rita Jail

Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Calif.

Over the opposition of civil rights groups and amid a global pandemic, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved the sheriff’s request for an additional $318 million over the next three years to fund Santa Rita Jail.

Where the money will come from during the pending recession and coronavirus outbreak is unclear.

Cities, counties and the state of California have all projected major budget shortfalls because the economy has been effectively shut down for the last two months. Alameda County faces an estimated $72 million shortfall. 

"The money is not there,” Supervisor Wilma Chan said before voting no. “It doesn’t exist."

Jose Bernal, a senior organizer with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and a vocal critic of the sheriff, told the supervisors he was "outraged and disgusted" at their decision.

He said the money could be better spent on finding shelter for the homeless, buying protective gear for healthcare workers and job training for all those out of work. He and others implored the supervisors not to turn the jail into a psychiatric institution and that mental health care is better treated in the community, "not in cages."

The vote came after nearly 3 ½ hours of testimony and at a time when the jail population is at a historic low.

Since March 16, when the stay-at-home order was enacted in the Bay Area, more than 1,110 inmates have been released early or are out of custody on zero bail in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus in close quarters. About 35 percent of the inmates are in need of some kind of mental health care, according to county officials.

Inmates numbered about 1,700 on Tuesday. 

Instead of spending the $318 million, Chan had unsuccessfully suggested first hiring people for the 40 vacant sheriff positions, which the office has had trouble filling.

She also noted that coronavirus had created a crisis, and should give supervisors pause. Instead of adding more staff to the jail, she argued, she and her colleagues should now be thinking outside the box.

 "I think this could be a time to discuss sensible prison reform," Chan said. 

Chan and Keith Carson were the two no votes. Supervisors Nate Miley, Scott Haggerty and Richard Valle voted yes. 

Valle added a last-minute amendment moments before the vote:  That with the budget increase, the behavioral health department must also reduce the number of mentally ill inmates.  

But what that will look like exactly remains unclear. There was no immediate direction on how to achieve that mandate. 

Sheriff Gregory Ahern had submitted a proposal to hire 349 positions for his office and 107 positions from the county's behavioral services agency to help meet the needs at his correctional facility, which has been marred by high in-custody death rates and allegations that mental health care is inadequate. The estimated cost is $106 million a year for three years. 

Over the last decade, the sheriff’s budget has grown by $144 million. And this year, the budget is already just over $440 million.  

Ahern did not attend the virtual board meeting. 

Instead, Undersheriff Rich Lucia made the plea to the board, saying that the department had always known they were understaffed, but as a result of a 2018 lawsuit, realized just how few deputies they really had. 

He said that deputies are now working overtime to meet the gaps that the plaintiffs' lawyers in the Ashok Babu vs. Alameda County pointed out.

And he promised that the money would not be spent unless the deputies are actually hired.

“This is not a slush fund,” Lucia told the supervisors. 

The federal class-action suit alleges the cruel and unusual punishment of inmates and failure to provide adequate mental health care, among other violations.

Santa Rita also has the highest in-custody jail death rate in the Bay Area and many of the inmates in the last five years have committed suicide and were held in isolation, a KTVU investigation found last year. 

In order to avoid trial, the two sides have been meeting regularly to find solutions and compromises. Both parties agreed to hire experts from Sabot Consulting, who issued a 237-page report last month finding that the jail was chronically understaffed. 

“We’ve known for a long time we were understaffed,” Lucia told the board. “But we didn’t know the extent. Frankly, we were surprised.” 

Of note, however, is that the experts conducted their study before the COVID-19 crisis had slashed the inmate population nearly in half.

Kara Janssen, one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit against the sheriff, said she liked Valle’s addition to reduce the mentally ill population. 

Before the vote, county counsel Donna Ziegler told the supervisors that if they didn't approve the sheriff's budget request, they'd have to address the inadequate staffing issue at some point because of the lawsuit. 

The yes vote came after more than two dozen residents and 65 grassroots groups opposed the spending, mostly because they don't believe jail is the right place low-level offenders and those who suffer from drug addiction, alcoholism and mental health issues.

They also cited finances as a big reason to vote no. No one from the public called in to support the spending. 

One man noted that Alameda County, like the rest of the country, is facing a Great Depression because of the coronavirus shutdown and spending that amount of money - a 24% increase - is far from prudent at this point. 

Lee Davis, chair of the Alameda County Behavioral Services Mental Health Board, also had asked the board to vote no. She also urged them to mandate an independent financial and performance audit of Santa Rita, which civil rights groups have been demanding for nearly three years. 

“There is not enough information in this proposal,” she said. “This is an enormous financial request.”

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@foxtv.com(opens in new tab) or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez