Small town with several detention centers debates if it needs another

Adelanto faces a $2.6-million deficit and is considering building a jail to house L.A. County inmates

The budget deficit and the detention centers are about the only things growing in this economically depressed high-desert city.

Amid the tumbleweeds on the edge of town, construction crews are adding 650 beds at a privately run detention facility for immigrants facing deportation. A few blocks away, San Bernardino County recently completed a $145-million expansion of its jail. A third prison down the street started housing state inmates last year.

Now, with Adelanto facing a $2.6-million budget deficit, some officials want to add another jail, this one to house overflow inmates from Los Angeles County.

Supporters say the proposed 3,264-bed jail, which is being pushed by a pair of out-of-town developers, would bring in $1.2 million in taxes annually. They call it the only option to help Adelanto avoid insolvency.

"I'm not a fan of prisons, and I'm not trying to generate a prison city," said Adelanto Mayor Cari Thomas. "But this will create thousands of jobs and revenue that we need."

But critics question the wisdom of expanding the city's incarceration industry at a time when the number of inmates is falling nationally and changes to state and federal laws could reduce demand for jail beds.

President Obama could take executive action as early as this week to reduce deportations, which could lead to fewer immigrants in detention, experts say. And Proposition 47 — the voter-approved initiative that reduces penalties for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes — may eventually mean fewer people in California prisons and jails.

"Trying to build a new jail for that population makes absolutely no sense," said Victoria Mena, who started an inmate visitation program at the immigrant detention center, and who is leading a campaign against the new jail. She said the existing detention facilities in Adelanto have not lived up to their promises of economic gains and have hurt the city more than helped it.

Adelanto City Councilman Jermaine Wright, who also opposes the project, said the city "needs a viable industry that has nothing to do with jailing people."

The City Council is scheduled to take up the development agreement for the new jail Wednesday. Under the deal, a financing authority created for the project would issue bonds to build the $327-million facility in an industrial park in Adelanto, a speck of a city on a dusty stretch of U.S. 395, about 85 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

The developers, Doctor R. Crants, of Nashville, and William Buck Johns, of Newport Beach, want Los Angeles County to lease beds there for 20 years at $88 per bed per day. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors has not approved the deal, although several board members have said they were open to exploring the proposal.

The county's jails have been chronically overcrowded, in part because of Gov. Jerry Brown's realignment strategy, which increased the number of low-level felons and parole violators in county facilities. The county regularly releases inmates early because of a lack of space.

L.A. County officials say they expect a dip in the jail population under Proposition 47, saying some of the 2,500 inmates convicted of Proposition 47 crimes might be eligible for a sentence downgrade. The immediate effect will probably not be empty jail beds but more space for other inmates to serve a longer portion of their sentences, said sheriff's Cmdr. Jody Sharp, a high-level administrator in the jail system.

Even with the new sentencing guidelines in place, Crants said he believes there will be a long-term demand in L.A. County for extra beds and said he expects county officials to approve the deal once Adelanto agrees to build the jail.

But he acknowledged that the prison-building boom that began in the 1980s may soon level off.

"The industry is approaching the crest of demand," said Crants, who co-founded Corrections Corp. of America, which today houses nearly 70,000 inmates in more than 60 facilities across the country. Crants left the firm in 2001.

His former company and other private prison firms have built hundreds of jails in recent decades with a focus on places like Adelanto — rural towns with cheap land and few other economic options.

The High Desert is dotted with other correctional facilities.

There are state prisons in Tehachapi and Lancaster, and a private prison that houses state inmates in California City. Victorville, which borders Adelanto, is home to a sprawling federal correctional complex.

Residents say the prisons have a lasting effect on the region, which was hit hard by the closure of George Air Force Base in 1992 and, more recently, the home foreclosure crisis.

Letty Guerrero, who is raising three sons in Adelanto, said she thinks that the facilities have dissuaded other kinds of businesses from moving to the region and that the razor-wire fences and busloads of inmates passing through town are not a positive influence.

"It's not a good environment for our teens," she said. "There's no jobs here, no colleges. Just jails."

She and others have complained that jobs in the private facilities don't pay enough and often go to people from outside Adelanto. She also said the detention centers have been known to release inmates at their gates, which she said poses a safety risk to the community.

Incoming Adelanto Mayor Rich Kerr, who will replace Thomas on Dec. 10, acknowledged that the city's major industry has created "the stigma that Adelanto is a prison city."

He opposed the jail plan while running in this month's election but now says he is open to considering it because of "the monetary benefit."

With 32,000 residents stretched over 57 square miles and only a handful of retail stores and restaurants, Adelanto's tax revenue falls far short of its spending.

After declaring a fiscal crisis last year, officials closed a fire station, laid off a fourth of the town's staff and asked residents to approve a nearly 8% utility users tax to stay afloat. Voters rejected that proposal Nov. 4.

City leaders say Adelanto would be worse off without its jails.

In 2010 the city sold a jail it built in the 1980s to a Florida prison firm called GEO Group for $28 million. That infusion of cash had helped officials balance the budget for a few years, City Manager Jim Hart said.

Hart said the city gets about $200,000 annually from the detention facilities in the form of a bed tax and said that adding another might attract a new jail "logistics" industry to the city, such as companies that provide food or laundry service at the jails.

He said he had extracted promises from the developers of the new project, including a provision that area residents be given preferential treatment in hiring, and that revenue be used to hire an extra police officer for the city.

Hart said Adelanto has little latitude to deny the jail, which is proposed for land appropriately zoned for that use.

"You can deny a project and spend hundreds and thousands of dollars in a lawsuit," he said. "Or you can try to extract promises from them."

Twitter: @katelinthicum

Times staff writer Cindy Chang contributed to this report.

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