Editorial: Prison transfers to county jails must be funded

Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to send low-risk inmates convicted of non-violent crimes to county jails instead of state prisons is understandable, given that California is under a federal order to reduce its prison population.

But Sacramento must make good on a promise to provide a permanent, ironclad source of funding to cover the cost of taking on more inmates. Otherwise, this will become yet another unfunded mandate the state has infamously foisted on local agencies, and counties like ours will be out millions of dollars as a result.

In San Luis Obispo County alone, officials estimate that the new incarceration policy will increase the population of the local jail by 140 inmates by mid-2013. When you consider that last year’s average daily population at the jail was 558, 140 is a significant increase.

And it isn’t just the jail that will be affected; the County Probation Department will have more cases, as will agencies that provide services to inmates, such as county Mental Health and Drug and Alcohol Services.

The county will hire more employees — the jail alone will need an additional 13 to 15 correctional officers — to handle the influx.

For now, the state is covering those costs; a portion of sales tax and vehicle license fees has been allocated to the so-called realignment.

Our county is expecting around $2.5 million to cover the cost of new employees and other expenses for the coming 10 months.

But then what?

What happens four or five years from now, when the state is in another financial bind and decides to “raid” funds earmarked for county jails and probation departments?

Granted, Brown has promised to seek a constitutional amendment next year to guarantee continued funding for counties.

“I’m not leaving Sacramento until we get a constitutional guarantee to protect law enforcement and the whole realignment process,” he told a gathering of law enforcement officials last week.

Tough talk, but we’ve seen such promises go by the wayside too often.

We would have felt more secure about the prospect of taking on more inmates if the constitutional amendment had been passed before this was a done deal — not after.

Since that didn’t happen, it’s critical to hold Brown to his promise. We need a constitutional guarantee that counties will be reimbursed for bailing the state out of its prison mess.

Because as bad as financial conditions are now for San Luis Obispo County, they’ll be whole lot worse is the county is stuck footing the bill.