Shasta County’s Measure A – Hard Questions To Ask

County residents should be asking hard questions about Measure A, which proposes a countywide sales tax of 1%, mostly to fund the county jail and law enforcement, and which will be on voters’ ballots for the March 3 primary.

Although it’s frequently referred to as a “public safety tax”, from my perspective that isn’t entirely accurate. “Public safety” is a term that refers to the welfare and protection of the general public. This means you, me, the rich people who live up on the hill, and the unsheltered men and women sleeping outside. A more accurate description would be to say that Measure A is focused on something related, but different: enhancing the criminal justice system in Shasta County.

According to the Safe Shasta website, Measure A will provide $31 million dollars, 51% of which will be designated for the Shasta County Jail, including capital expenditures for new facilities, as well as funding for operations, programs and services.

Here are some questions I think both government officials and residents should be asking about Measure A.

What data have officials gathered to show the cause of the real or perceived lack of public safety in Shasta County?

Judging by the planned use of these “public safety” tax funds, public officials view the root cause of the real or perceived lack of public safety as stemming from a lack of jail space, operations, programs and services.

What data has been shared with residents that reasonably proves this conclusion?

Keep in mind that oft-repeated statements aren’t the same as data.

If the public is less safe due to a lack of jail capacity, how many jail beds are needed?

Many people in Shasta County feel that the County needs more jail beds, as anecdotally evidenced by daily capacity releases at the Shasta County Jail. But how many more jail beds are needed?

I was a member of the 2018 Shasta County Grand Jury when we wrote a report on this very subject, titled Jail Capacity and Funding. The Jury pointed out that while it seems clear that Shasta County does need more jail beds, the Board of Supervisors (BOS) has never determined how many jail beds are actually needed. A search of minutes from BOS meetings since that Grand Jury report was published shows no evidence of any data-driven review or analysis of how many jail beds are needed in Shasta County.

What data has been shared with County residents documenting the number of jail beds needed? Why would we designate a percentage of funding to continue to build more jail beds without determining the number needed?

The public has been promised “up to 500” additional jail beds with Measure A money. If data shows that this is the needed number of jail beds, what would the costs be to build these beds and to operate and maintain a jail facility of this capacity?

We all know that 51% of $31 million is a lot of money. But it’s not an infinite amount of money. Before building a bigger jail we need to be very clear on not only what it would cost to construct additional jail space but more critically, what the on-going costs would be to operate the facility we think we need. Don’t forget that the County gave back money for a jail before, when officials had not thoroughly counted the cost ahead of time. It’s fair to ask them to provide us the data that proves they’re not about to make a similar mistake.

Is the cost of new jail facilities for up to 500 inmates known? Have these figures been shared transparently with the public?

How soon will these jail beds become available? What will happen in the meantime?

Common sense tells us that building this many new jail beds will take time.

According to the Safe Shasta website, while jail facilities are being built, Measure A tax money will be used to send a greater number of Shasta County inmates out of County for incarceration. The County is currently funded to send 19 inmates out-of-county for incarceration and the Safe Shasta site states that Measure A funding will allow for 60 out-of-county jail beds. This means the 1% sales tax is guaranteed to increase our jail capacity by only up to 41 beds in the mid-term . . . and this mid-term could likely last several years.

What’s the timeline for new jail facilities? Has this been transparently shared?

Will so-called “quality of life” crimes and homelessness be solved by increasing jail space?

From those most vociferously concerned about Shasta County’s lack of safety I usually hear complaints about “quality of life” crimes and an excessive number of homeless people in Redding. Will either of these be solved by a larger jail? Quality of life crimes are often misdemeanors. Homelessness is not illegal. The Safe Shasta website states, “With these funds we will aggressively address the quality of life crimes, addiction, mental health and homelessness challenges facing our community.” More needs to be said on how these kinds of behaviors would be addressed under the additional funding provided by Measure A.

Specifically, how would Measure A funds be used to combat homelessness and quality of life crimes?

The Shasta County Board of Supervisors paid $97,000 for a jail study that they received in September of 2019. This study indicated, among other findings, that the jail should implement an evidence-based risk assessment to help determine the risk of individual offenders prior to choosing inmates for capacity releases. It also suggested the use of pre-booking assessments to help reduce costs and failures to appear.

During this BOS meeting, a supervisor responded to the report by saying that the County has received multiple previous reports on the jail and they’re not being told anything new this time. (Leading one to wonder why the BOS didn’t originally implement those findings or prove them wrong.) The Sheriff promised at the meeting to respond to these findings in September 2019. There is no further public response documented in 2019.

Why are the BOS spending public funds for jail reports they don’t act on? Could there be cost efficiencies in running the Jail that the County has been informed of but has not implemented?

These questions aren’t comprehensive, but here’s my bottom line: The County would significantly benefit from a sales tax. Such funds could be used to address problems related to expanding homelessness and related low-level crimes, among other perceived public safety issues. Many of us would be happy to pay a 1% sales tax if it serves to benefit our community. But without the County publicly discussing and sharing real data and analysis showing the cause of the public safety issues and how planned spending will address those causes, many concerns arise.

Additionally, I wonder if the suggested uses of Measure A funds prepare our County well for the future. Governor Newsom has suggested there may be a way to penalize counties that have not responded sufficiently to the needs of the homeless (and I don’t think he meant incarcerating them). And a short way down the road, it’s highly likely that California will move to a no-bail jail system where pretrial incarceration is based on safety rather than raising bail. What will we do with our 1,000 jail beds then?

Tonight, February 13th, a Measure A town hall will be held at First United Methodist at 6:30. Attend and bring your questions!

Annelise Pierce

Annelise Pierce is fascinated by the intersection of people and policy. She has a special interest in criminal justice, poverty, mental health and education. Her long and storied writing career began at age 11 when she won the Louisa May Alcott Foundation's Gothic Romance short story competition. (Spoiler alert - both hero and heroine die.) Annelise welcomes your (civil) interactions at AnnelisePierce@anewscafe.com

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