Editorial for July 11, 2007

July 10, 2007 11:00 pm

The 2006-07 Grand Jury report on the Tuolumne County Jail won't be news to anyone who works there or who has had the misfortune of spending time there.

The place is a mess: It's overcrowded, understaffed and, because it's nearly a half century old, falling apart. "A leaky boat" is how the jury's just-released report characterizes the now hopelessly outdated building. Maintenance problems accumulate faster than they can be repaired and cash spent on the jail, jurors say, may amount to "throwing good money after bad."

This news is hardly earthshaking: More than a decade ago, the county's 1995-96 Grand Jury recommended that a new, larger jail be constructed. And in 1992, Sheriff Dick Nutting — just as the county was completing a $2.6 million addition to the old jail — stressed that construction of a new criminal justice center was the only real answer to the space crisis.

The present Grand Jury echoes those 15-year-old sentiments, saying that construction of a new jail and justice center would solve virtually all the problems it cited in the 2006-07 report.

Jurors are right: If such a criminal justice center was needed a decade and a half ago, that need today has become urgent.

Tuolumne County supervisors, for many months in negotiations to buy property for just such a center, must promptly close a deal on the land and fast-track the criminal justice center project.

The county's population has soared by more than 10,000 since Nutting first made his recommendation and conditions at the jail have only worsened. Not only that, but the Sheriff's Office itself is shoehorned into the same 1959 building. Crowded, uncomfortable staff conditions are the rule, not the exception.

Sheriff's investigators have moved to an office in Columbia and modular units outside the main office house patrol and other divisions. Other criminal justice departments, which have long since outgrown their original quarters, are scattered and fragmented.

The District Attorney is housed opposite Sonora High School, the Probation Department is a mile down South Washington Street in the old county library, and courtrooms are split between the county's 1898 courthouse and in a North Washington Street building that was once the county garage. With gasoline running more than $3 a gallon, such decentralization is not only impractical, but costly.

Some of the blame may lie with the county. Property negotiations for what is now called the Law & Justice Center, after all, have lingered for well over a year.

But, to be fair, the Board of Supervisors throughout much of this period has been preoccupied with the painful, controversial closure of the cash-hemorrhaging Tuolumne General Hospital.

With TGH now closed, it is the time to set new priorities and replace the old jail before deterioration becomes even more costly.

County Administrator Craig Pedro said negotiations for the justice center site could wrap up by next month.

Pending a sale agreement, he is not at liberty to disclose the size, location or price of the land involved, but Pedro said it is large enough to accommodate a new jail, sheriff's office, court complex, DA's office, probation department, public defender's office and, perhaps, a much-needed juvenile detention center.

Importantly, there may be state cash available to help build this multi-million dollar project: Assembly Bill 900, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's $7.7 billion jail and prison construction bill, sets aside $1.2 billion for 13,000 new beds at county jails across California. And the 25 percent local match typically required, the bill provides, can be waived for counties with populations of less than 200,000.

"State money is crucial," said Pedro, adding that the center cannot be built with local sources of cash alone.

Although 12 to 16 months of legally required environmental review will be necessary, the CAO estimates ground could be broken for the Law & Justice Center within two years.

To accomplish this, county supervisors and staff must stay locked on this goal. Not only because a new justice center is so badly needed, but to save the old jail from sinking under the weight of its own multiplying problems.

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.