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California Set To Award $500 Million To Jails In 15 Counties

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California is set to award $500 million on Thursday to 15 counties for jail projects that are designed to help rehabilitate prisoners, such as classrooms, visitation and recreation areas or mental health and medical facilities.

State lawmakers approved the money before voters last year lowered penalties for some drug and property crimes, thereby reducing the state's overall jail population by 9,000 inmates at least in the short term.

Still, opponents planned to show up in force at the Board of State and Community Corrections meeting Thursday to object that the state should not be spending money on jails amid a national movement to reduce mass incarceration.

Cory Salzillo, a spokesman for the California State Sheriffs' Association, said counties need the money to provide the kind of rehabilitation programs that voters sought when they approved Proposition 47, including those dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, jobs and education.

Some of the projects are designed to create space for long-term felons who filtered down to jails after California began excluding less-serious offenders from state prisons four years ago under Gov. Jerry Brown's criminal justice realignment, he said.

"You're holding folks for longer periods of time and there's an expectation that you provide services and meet needs that weren't really part of the discussion before," he said. "They have to have the buildings to provide the treatment to make realignment work."

Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a statewide coalition of more than 70 organizations opposed to prison and jail expansion, argue that counties should concentrate on jail alternatives like treatment programs and releasing more inmates awaiting trial, said Lizzie Buchen, a coordinator with CURB.

"They're reinforcing their reliance on incarceration by building new jails and expanding old ones," she said in a recent conference call with reporters.

Board spokeswoman Tracie Cone declined comment, saying the policy question is best left to state lawmakers who approved the money.

Steven Meinrath, an advocate with the ACLU of California's Center for Advocacy and Policy, said most counties are seeking the funds to create more classrooms and treatment space, as lawmakers intended when they approved the money, rather than to increase the number of jail cells as opponents had feared.

But he worried that jails are more frequently being asked to care for mentally ill offenders who he said could better be served in outside treatment programs. Some projects include video visitation facilities that he fears could be used instead of allowing personal visits with inmates.

Salzillo didn't disagree, but said the reality is jails house mentally ill offenders and need space for counseling. Video visits can be safer, deter smuggling of contraband, and be more convenient for families who live far away.

Meinrath said the proposals are generally vague on how counties will pay for operating and staffing the new facilities once they are built, details that Salzillo said will emerge as the projects progress.

"What that means is there may be a lot of classrooms without teachers. We don't know," Meinrath said.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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