Los Angeles County's overcrowded and outdated jail system is a headache for local officials; but for leaders of the small and economically distressed desert city of Adelanto, it's a potential windfall — or so they hope.
County supervisors recently voted to embark on a $2-billion plan to tear down and rebuild the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. The new facility is intended to improve conditions for inmates with physical and mental health needs, but would not add beds to the county system or address the overcrowding that has led to thousands of inmates being released early each year.
Adelanto, a city of 31,000 in San Bernardino County's high desert region, is proposing to build a 3,280-bed jail on vacant industrial land next to a federal corrections complex. Then it would lease the beds to Los Angeles County. City Manager Jim Hart said Adelanto — via its public financing authority or another agency to be created for the project — would issue bonds to buy the property and build the jail, at an estimated cost of $332 million.
Under a proposal presented earlier this month by a pair of businessmen who are marketing the deal, Los Angeles County would not pay the upfront costs to build the jail but would agree to lease beds there for 20 years once it's completed, at a rate of $88 per bed per day, or about $104 million a year.
Proponents say the facility could be completed in about two years and would allow the county to avoid shortening the time served by serious offenders, comply with federal requirements to reduce crowding, and save money they might otherwise spend constructing new jails.
County supervisors have not formally discussed the proposal, but three of the five — Don Knabe, Gloria Molina and Michael D. Antonovich — have said they're willing to consider it.
Knabe said Friday that he sees the Adelanto facility as "a possible enhancement in the future" to expand the county's jail capacity — not as an alternative to the Men's Central Jail project.
"It would not be something I would want to pursue instead of the option we picked," he said.
Two politically connected businessmen are making the Adelanto pitch: Doctor R. Crants, a Nashville-based businessman who cofounded Corrections Corp. of America, the largest private prison company in the United States, and William Buck Johns, a Newport Beach-based developer and prominent Republican fundraiser who has been involved in other ventures in the Inland Empire. Johns and his company, Inland Group, have contributed to Knabe's and Antonovich's campaigns in the past.
Both Hart and Crants said there is no contract between the city and the two men to pitch the project. Crants said in an interview that if the project goes forward, he expected that he and Johns — with whom he said he had worked on a project in San Diego County in the late 1990s — would help the city arrange financing.
"I hope to get paid at the back end, but I don't have any arrangement with Adelanto at all," Crants said at a meeting with aides to the supervisors.
Adelanto has been pitching variations of the jail proposal since 2010, Hart said. But it didn't get much traction until recently, as the supervisors looked at making a major investment in constructing new jail facilities.
Such a deal would be a boon to Adelanto, which has struggled to stay financially afloat and recently declared a state of fiscal emergency. Hart said the proposed jail would create jobs and bring in revenue, and would fit well with the federal corrections facility across the street.
"It's not like we're taking a correctional facility and putting it somewhere it doesn't belong or where the community has problems with it," he said.
The current proposal is intended to supplement, not replace, the $2-billion Men's Central Jail plan, Hart said. Before the supervisors voted on that plan, Crants sent a memo asking them to consider scaling back the size of the new facility and building half the beds at the Adelanto site, where he said construction would be cheaper.
The supervisors have previously shown a willingness to lease beds outside the county. Last year, they voted to pursue a contract with the city of Taft to house inmates serving long sentences but quickly backed out of the deal after they learned that the facility was the subject of a legal dispute between Taft and the state corrections department.