Calaveras County is officially off the starting line.

After wondering for years where the money and property for a badly needed new jail might come from, the Board of Supervisors has hired a consulting firm to find out.

It won't come cheap, as TRG Consulting of Palm Desert will charge the county $245,000 to draw up preliminary sketches of the new jail and sheriff's office, conduct staffing studies, review funding sources and find potential sites for a new justice center.

It's the right move: The price of waiting would be even higher.

Built 44 years ago, the jail has a capacity of 65 and has been too small for nearly a quarter century. In that span, crowding has gone from an inconvenience to a public danger.

Last year, 1,800 criminals who should have been behind bars were released because the jail simply didn't have room for them. Many who had been convicted and sentenced escaped without serving even an hour.

Not only has a key deterrent against crime disappeared, but Calaveras County neighborhoods are put at risk both by people who have gotten away with crime and people who know they can.

And, finding that get-out-of-jail-free cards are available to almost everyone, criminals who would be locked up in other areas may see a welcome mat in San Andreas.

How bad is it?

Tuolumne County, whose population is about 25 percent larger than that of Calaveras, has a jail that's nearly twice as big. And Sonora's 124-bed jail is so often beyond capacity that Sheriff Jim Mele says building a new lockup is a top priority.

Making the situation even worse is that Calaveras County, gaining about 1,000 new residents a year, is growing about twice as fast as Tuolumne.

The clock has struck midnight and is still ticking.

At this point, Calaveras County's best chance at funding is a new prison reform package proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The plan would set aside $5.5 billion dollars for local jail and juvenile hall construction.

But there are catches: First, a local match of nearly 20 percent is required. But worth a more thorough examination is a requirement that county jails house thousands of convicts who now go into the state's crowded prison system.

At present, only those sentenced to a year or less go to jail. Under the governor's plan, anyone serving fewer than three years would stay in jail. Of 45,000 new jail beds the administration plan would build, more than half (25,000) would accommodate the new, "state-shift" prisoners.

So Calaveras must move forward with caution. Not only must the new jail meet the county's own considerable needs, but must also house a yet-unknown number of transferred prisoners and criminals sentenced to between one and three years behind bars.

Before signing on the dotted line, Calaveras County officials must not only be sure that the jail is big enough to meet existing and future needs, but that the necessary increased staffing and training is affordable.

The road ahead may be full of twists and turns and, as the Board of Supervisors knows, it could take four years or longer to travel.

But, with the hiring of TRG to negotiate the tricky course ahead, the necessary journey has begun.

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Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.