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Fixing ‘inhumane’ jail conditions part of Sacramento County’s $4.4 billion budget plan

Improvements to Sacramento County jails stemming from a lawsuit alleging “inhumane” solitary confinement conditions made up the bulk of new spending recommended to the Board of Supervisors for the county’s 2019-20 budget.

Released Tuesday, the $4.4 billion spending plan is a 2.4 percent increase from last year’s budget, with county departments angling to get about $33.1 million for new or improved programs. The staff budget also recommends about $43 million in cuts, mostly by eliminating vacant positions. No layoffs are proposed.

“The budget is balanced, totally balanced,” said county spokeswoman Kim Nava. “There are no gaps.”

The Board of Supervisors will begin reviewing the staff recommended budget next Tuesday during its next meeting and may take several more days if necessary.

County staff recommended spending $21.7 million on changes “as part of continuing efforts to resolve conditions of confinement concerns” outlined in a lawsuit last year by Disability Rights California and the Prison Law Office on behalf of six inmates. The lawsuit alleged people in custody would be subject to “harsh, prolonged, and undue isolation.”

A long-planned $89.3 million expansion of the Sacramento County jail’s Elk Grove facility to build a medical and mental health ward is already in the pipeline, with the county expected to award a construction contract in July.

A McClatchy and ProPublica investigation in April found that since realignment efforts began in 2011, shifting responsibility for thousands of offenders from state prisons to county jails, inmates are dying at a higher rate. Many county jails have struggled to handle the influx of violent and mentally ill inmates incarcerated for longer sentences.

“These serious problems are longstanding, and are the result of the dangerous over-representation of people with mental health needs who are incarcerated at the jail and the County’s failure to provide the resources to deliver clinically necessary treatment to them,” Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, an attorney at Disability Rights California, one of groups that filed the lawsuit, previously told The Sacramento Bee.

Other new spending recommended included $2.3 million to hire 25 full-time employees with Child Support Services and $3.5 million to hire 29 full-time employees with the Airports Department because of increasing airline passengers and freight volume from retailers such as Amazon packages.

“We’re also continuing to fund board investments in homeless initiatives, mental health (and) drug and alcohol addiction,” Nava said.

Under the recommended budget, about 192 positions would be cut that are currently vacant, or are filled by a staffer who can be shift to a different position. The eliminations would save about $41.4 million in net costs for the county.

The departments of Child, Family and Adult Services and Human Assistance would be most affected, though Animal Care, Health Services and Public Defender departments would also see positions eliminated, among others.

Five deputy sheriff positions from the homeless outreach team would be removed, reducing the number of deputies assigned to the team by half, according to the budget. Deleting the positions would save about $1 million. The team handled 4,125 complaints last year, and cutting the positions “will reduce the number of complaints that can be responded to,” the budget stated.

The county staff also recommends putting aside $1 million for costs related to an ongoing lawsuit between the county and gravel miner Joseph Hardesty and landowner Jay Schneider.

The gravel-mining operation successfully sued the county for a landmark $107 million judgment last year, arguing county officials put them out of business for the benefit of a rival construction company. The county has since appealed the ruling, and litigation is ongoing.

The board must approve a recommended budget by June 30 for the start of the new fiscal year, and a final budget must be approved by Oct. 2.

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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