Plan for prison complex should not be abandoned

The state of California has put plans for a Paso Robles prison complex on ice. That’s an economic blow not only for Paso, but also for the entire county.

Three facilities would have been housed at the site of the former California Youth Authority space in Paso: a reentry center for prison inmates who are within a year of release; amedium-security prison for older inmates with health issues; and a fire camp for lowerrisk inmates, similar to the camp that was operated back in the Youth Authority days.

The project would have generated hundreds of headof-household jobs, including temporary construction jobs during the remodeling phase and permanent jobs once the facilities opened.

Now, all three projects have been postponed, perhaps indefinitely.

That change has rekindled talk of turning the property over to another entity — possibly the city of Paso Robles. Paso Councilman Fred Strong has even revived talk of having the city buy the property from the state for abuck, and he’s soliciting ideas for reuse.

We see no harm in compiling a wish list.

In fact, here’s our two cents: Why not immediately convert a portion of the property into a “safe parking” facility for homeless people living out of their vehicles?

But when it comes to longterm planning, is any government agency really in the financial position to forge ahead with any sort of project? Didn’t think so.

For now, we believe it makes sense to sit tight and find out whether the state may revert to its plan to build a network of re-entry facilities throughout the state.

That will depend, in large part, on the success of realignment — aterm that refers to the new policy of sending many low- and medium-risk offenders to county jails, rather than state prisons.

It’s a plan that works well for the state: By funneling inmates to counties, it can comply with a federal order to reduce the populations in overcrowded prisons.

Also, it can suspend — or at least postpone — plans to build an expensive network of new prison facilities throughout the state.

We can’t fault the state for wanting to save money, especially on its bloated prison system. It’s outrageous that the state spends more to incarcerate prisoners than it does on higher education.

Equally appalling is the lousy job the state has been doing in rehabilitating inmates. According to the most recent statistics, 65 percent of inmates are back in prison within three years of release.

Re-entry facilities — which were first proposed during former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration — were supposed to improve that. Within six months to a year of release, inmates were to be returned to their home counties, where they would be linked to services and support systems to help them make a successful transition back into their communities.

Under Gov. Brown, however, that model changed. Now, more inmates are going to county jails.

Again, that makes sense for the state, but we have a couple of lingering concerns: Will the state make good on its promise to provide a permanent source of funding to reimburse counties for accepting more inmates?

Will counties be in any better position to provide rehabilitation programs — including counseling, substance abuse programs and vocational and educational training — that are key to reducing recidivism?

If not, we must re-evaluate whether the new realignment model makes sense.

Taxpayers should not be burdened with keeping lowlevel inmates in custody — whether it’s in a state prison or county jail — if there’s a possibility that the right programming can help them stay out of trouble for good.

Re-entry facilities could turn out to be the smart approach, and if that’s the case, Paso Robles would still be a good fit for afacility.