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A Running Start 

County nabs $20 million in state funds for new transitional jail facility

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The Humboldt County jail has always had doors, but officials are hoping a $20 million state grant will keep them from revolving.

Sheriff Mike Downey announced last week that the state approved funding to build a multi-use addition to the county jail that will connect inmates with services during their incarceration. The funding will be added to $1.5 million from the county to build a three-story structure on the gravel lot adjacent to the jail that will include a one-stop-shop for probation and mental health services. The idea, Downey explained, is to consolidate re-entry services under one roof and create a warm handoff from incarceration to post-release services.

"(Inmates) will have all the services they need to make that transition from being an inmate here to being released and no longer in custody," Downey said.

Humboldt County Probation Division Director Shaun Brenneman said the plan is to transition his department's day reporting center on Fourth Street into the new facility, which would allow probation officers to form relationships with inmates while they are still in custody, relationships that can then be maintained once an inmate is released back into the community. Currently, offenders are released and asked to report to the probation day center to meet their probation officers for the first time. Some never make it the two blocks.

The probation department supervises about 1,150 people locally — 150 or so through California's prison realignment and about another 1,000 on formal probation sentences through the Humboldt County Superior Court. In past interviews with the Journal, Probation Chief Bill Damiano has said he has a plethora of resources to offer the offenders who came under his supervision as a part of Assembly Bill 109, the state's 2011 prison realignment law. The law aimed to reduce prison overcrowding by pushing low-level offenders back to county jails and local supervision, forcing local agencies and governments to create solutions to reduce recidivism rates.

For the approximately 150 people Damiano oversees who previously would have been serving state prison sentences, behavioral health staff, psychiatric nurses, mental health clinicians, vocational counselors and others help ensure their post-incarceration success. But Damiano said he has virtually no resources to deal with people on formal probation. There's a bit of money for alcohol and drug services, he said, and some to help sex offenders find housing and mental health treatment. But, for the vast majority, his department has few resources at its disposal and simply does its best to supervise probationers, engage with them and refer them to a variety of community-based services. Consequently, he said, especially for those probationers who are deemed at a high risk to reoffend, their success will ultimately depend heavily on a probation officers' ability to connect with them and show them "new thought patterns, new habits and new skills."

This resource discrepancy seems to correlate directly to outcomes. In a 2013 report to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, the local Community Correction Partnership reported that more than 50 percent of its case closures for high-risk felons released through realignment were successfully discharged from supervision. That number plummeted below 8 percent for high-risk probationers.

Brenneman said the new facility is designed to engage inmates during their incarceration so they leave custody and enter probation having already formed relationships with their probation officers, connected to services and begun the process of learning the habits and skills necessary for a successful re-entry into the community.

"Re-entry services are a crucial missing link to local services," he said, adding he hopes the new facility will fill that void. "Hopefully, they'll be going back into the community with a running start and they'll be successful."

In addition to better preparing inmates to transition to life on the outside, officials said the new facility will also allow for a more robust mental health, substance abuse and vocational counseling services delivery in the jail.

Currently, space limitations hamper mental health staff's ability to confer with inmates and set up a permanent space in the jail, which has seen a startling spike in attempted inmate suicides this year, with a dozen attempts so far. In addition to providing mental health staff with office and work space, the new facility plan calls for six minimum security beds for inmates requiring additional mental health services and monitoring.

Brenneman said bolstered mental health and substance services would likely improve community re-entry outcomes and help bring down recidivism rates.

The three-story facility will also feature 44 minimum security jail beds on the top floor, and a parking structure on the ground floor, which officials said was a key component in bringing the city of Eureka and local business owners on board, resulting in the partnership that ultimately won state approval.

While construction of the new facility certainly wouldn't have been possible without the $20 million in funding made possible by Senate Bill 863, which earmarked $500 million to fund new adult criminal justice facilities throughout the state, it does come with a substantial local cost to Humboldt County, which just voted to raise sales tax rates.

In addition to the $1.5 million the county pledged toward construction to help secure the state grant, there's the ongoing annual expense of the 15 to 20 correctional officers Downey said will be needed to staff the new facility. That's an estimated $1.7 million annual hit to the county's general fund. County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes said the county is aware of this looming personnel expense and has worked it into its five-year financial plan.

Smith-Hanes said he expects the board of supervisors to officially accept the state funding award in the coming weeks.

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