Hillsborough County greatly exaggerated the need for new jail space because of a population projection that "appears indefensibly high," a new study has found.
Previous projections called for about 1,400 more beds than the county will need, the study found.
That's a $41-million mistake, based on the current estimate for jail construction. And that doesn't include the even higher operating costs for the life of such a facility.
The study, done by a non-profit group in California, suggests the county doesn't need a new jail at all if less expensive alternatives are used.
A more detailed study, however, is needed before a final conclusion can be reached about the need for a new jail, said Al Kalmanoff, executive director of the Institute for Law and Policy Planning in Berkeley, Calif.
"Our assignment was to tell the county from just a strict population study what potentials might exist," Kalmanoff said. "So to take it to the next step is really not our job right now."
Still, the study will provide powerful ammunition for critics of the county's plan to build a $30-million jail on Falkenburg Road near Brandon.
That project, the result of a $600,000 plan, was stalled by Brandon residents opposed to a jail in their community.
The county is spending $2-million to build a temporary jail on Falkenburg but has not come up with the $5-million a year it will need to run it.
The county paid the institute $75,000 to conduct the study. "That $75,000 could wind up saving the county millions of dollars," said Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ed Turanchik, who pushed for it.
"In my view, the report basically says we don't need a new jail as long as we undertake the less costly alternatives," Turanchik said. "If you do nothing, you'll need a new jail. But if you spend a little money on things like pretrial diversion programs, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, all of which cost less than a jail, then you can put off the need for a new jail for a number of years."
The study also suggests other ways of reducing the inmate population, including letting more inmates out, hastening the time it takes to transfer inmates from jail to state prison, expanding drug court and increasing reliance on alternative sentencing.
County Administrator Fred Karl, who has been struggling to figure out how to pay for a new jail without raising taxes, said he was relieved by the findings of the study.
"That's good financial news if it's correct, but we want to look at it very carefully," he said.
The study points out the conflicting nature of the public's thinking about law and order.
"Although public opinion in general calls for increasing severity in dealing with criminals," it says, "this does not always translate into the provision of new jail space. Jails are expensive."
Besides, there's no direct correlation between jails and crime. New jails don't mean lower crime, the study says. And the jail population appears to expand simply to fill the space that's provided.
The projections the county had been relying on for its jail needs were done through the architectural firm Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc.
The study suggests there is a conflict of interest in such an arrangement because "interested advisers who stand to gain by such construction" often encourage the perception that more space will solve jail overcrowding.
"Architects and planners ultimately stand to gain 6 percent of any project that comes out of their work," Kalmanoff said. "We are a non-profit corporation that never works for architects."
Kalmanoff is scheduled to discuss the report with the County Commission on Wednesday.
The state took the county to court last year because the jails continue to be overcrowded. Hillsborough Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez has imposed a series of deadlines for the county to solve the overcrowding problem.
But the problem fluctuates day to day. On Friday, for example, 2,133 inmates were being held in jails that have an operational capacity of 2,209 people. By the year 2010, Kalmanoff's study decided, the jail population likely will reach about 3,700, not 5,100 as originally projected.