Sheriff David Livingston and some Contra Costa police chiefs seem to be turning the proposal for West County jail expansion into raw power politics rather than reasoned discussion of public policy.
If Livingston and the chiefs believe the need for space to house 150 more inmates is so dire, they should make their case with statistics and demonstrate that is the best way to spend millions of dollars.
Instead, they will meet Wednesday morning to discuss unseating one of their own, Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus, who dared to speak out by suggesting that maybe this use of tax dollars should be more rationally based and might not be the best approach.
Magnus represents the chiefs on a county committee deciding how to spend $19 million that was sent down from the state. The money is designed to help counties as they are being required to accept low-level felons who previously would have gone to state prison.
Like us and many East Bay legislators and local officials, Magnus wonders whether more jails are the best way to reduce recidivism. Jails are not only expensive to build -- the Livingston expansion would cost $2.9 million -- they are exceptionally expensive to staff. In Contra Costa, sheriff deputies, with average salary and benefits of $194,000 a year, provide the security.
Magnus is just one of seven votes on the county committee, which also includes the sheriff, district attorney, public defender, probation
If the chiefs want to replace Magnus, that's their prerogative. But they should be publicly accountable and should make their decision in open session, not behind closed doors. The chiefs also should keep in mind that they have a constituency. They are accountable to their city managers and city councils.
Before they try to silence the messenger, the chiefs should analyze the policy issue before them. They should weigh alternatives such as greater use of home monitoring and changes making it easier for poor people to afford bail while awaiting trial. Those much cheaper options could reduce the demand for jail space.
They also should question whether the continued leasing of jail space to the federal government makes sense, if there isn't room for local inmates.
The county committee should also weigh the cost and benefits of all alternatives. Ultimately the committee decision is subject to review by the county board of supervisors. We expect them to put politics aside and protect the public -- and the public coffers.
As we've said before, jail expansion of some sort might make sense but, so far, the sheriff has failed to make the case to the public.