‘The Feds Can Build Their Own Facilities': State Bill Would Limit Expansion Funds to Jails That Lease to ICE

A California Senate bill that aims to prevent jails from collecting some state grants if they have a contract with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is drawing praise from immigrants’ rights advocates and the ire of local law enforcement agencies.

Senate Bill 630, if passed, would prohibit jails that lease space to "public and private entities" from receiving money set aside for expanding and improving jail facilities. It would also require any jail receiving those funds to certify that space will not be rented out for at least 10 years after the expansion’s construction. The provisions exempt jails that rent out beds to another county or state, but it would affect facilities across California that assist ICE by detaining immigrants.

The goal, according to State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who introduced the bill, is to ensure that the state's law enforcement agencies are prioritizing local obligations. If a jail has enough room to sublet beds to an outside agency, then it casts doubt on its need for a multi-million dollar expansion, she reasoned.

“We have limited state funds,” Skinner said in a phone interview with NBC Bay Area. “We want to make sure that we’re really building capacity where it’s needed, and not where there already is existing capacity."

The senator was careful to note that the bill wouldn't abolish contracts between ICE and local law enforcement. Instead, it will simply disqualify jails that participate in them from receiving funds that were earmarked as part of the 2011 state-mandated prison realignment.

"While it does not prevent (the contracts), it is certainly sending a clear message that we want to make sure our state priorities are being met," Skinner said. "The feds can build their own facilities."

The bill has garnered support among criminal justice reform advocates in Contra Costa County, who for months have been protesting against the Sheriff’s Office for leasing out 200 beds to ICE at the Richmond jail. Sheriff David Livingston currently has a $70 million grant proposal to expand the facility before the Board of the State and Community Corrections. Livingston's critics are hoping that Skinner's bill, if passed, will torpedo the deal.

“In Contra Costa County, this is a huge thing if it passes,” said immigrants’ rights activist Claudia Jimenez, who is helping lead the #ServicesNotCells campaign against the jail expansion. “We’ve been following the bill very closely. There is a lot of fear here in the community about the tight relationship ICE has with the sheriff’s department, so we want this to pass."

Jimenez and other allies are advocating for the release of nonviolent offenders and severing the ICE contract. They are also pushing the county to redirect $25 million it approved for the jail expansion to community programs that would help prevent incarceration.

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt also voiced his support for SB 630, issuing a public letter that called into question the use of "scarce" county and state funds to pay for the 150,000-square-foot expansion plan.

"The growing needs in communities like Richmond require that public funds be invested in advancing outcomes in education, community health and improving quality of life," Butt wrote. "We cannot afford to redirect scarce public funds for projects that counteract local public safety and community policing efforts."

If passed, the bill wouldn't go into effect until 2018, but Skinner, who wrote a letter to the County opposing the Richmond expansion, said she is hopeful the Board of State and Community Corrections will "take the intent of the legislature into account" before signing off on any current proposals.

The California Sheriff's Association, which has a history of opposing legislation that limits cooperation between ICE and local law enforcement, has come out against the bill. Association representatives testified before the Senate that it would limit the ability to perform crucial repairs. They also allege that it is too "late in the process" to "change the rules" for grant approval.

"These jail improvements are a direct benefit to the persons housed in these facilities and they demonstrate the sheriffs' commitment to providing appropriate services and treatment to our inmate populations," wrote Cory Salzillo, the legislative director for the sheriffs' association, in a letter to Skinner. 

Livingston, who was unavailable for comment, has argued that the Richmond jail expansion will provide much-needed rehabilitative and re-entry services to inmates. He also maintains that his plan will not add to the net number of beds, and will instead reduce existing overcrowding at in the Martinez and Richmond jails. 

The Board of State and Community Corrections will issue a decision on the Richmond grant in June. SB 630 passed through the State Senate's Public Safety Committee on Tuesday and is going back to the floor for a third reading. 

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