New Jail, Courtrooms Could Solve Fresno Overcrowding Issue

FRESNO, Calif. — As jail populations continue to swell, Fresno County officials are considering two expansion options that may ease its stressed correctional system. The Fresno County Board of Supervisors has recently requested state assistance to build and operate two new arraignment courtrooms, and has been pursuing competitive funds to replace an aging jail complex.

Though it would not house inmates, the addition of one, or possibly two, new arraignment courts would help officials work through a growing backlog of inmates currently in county lock up. Presently, just 31 percent of county jail inmates are actually serving sentences, while the remaining 69 percent are awaiting trial. The proposed arraignment courts would help expedite plea agreements and lower-level sentences, taking pressure off of the existing courts and helping to avoid unnecessary overcrowding. The county would be responsible for hiring clerks, officers and other support staff for the new courts, while the state would likely provide funds to hire visiting judges.

Meanwhile, the county is also seeking $80 million in state funds to demolish and rebuild an outdated jail facility referred to as the south annex. The 66-year-old building costs an estimated $15 million in annual operation costs, and is no longer deemed safe for either inmates or staff. A proposed 300-bed jail could potentially lower operation costs to just $10.7 million annually. The county would also be required to contribute roughly $8.8 million in matching funds, most of which would be provided via tobacco bond money.

The county submitted its official grant application to the state in October. If funds are provided, the new “west annex” facility would be built to replace the 499-bed south annex, provided county supervisors agree to both accept and spend the money. The loss of nearly 200 beds would be addressed by the proposed arraignment courts, intended to move inmates through the correctional system, rather than having them languish in the county facility. Plans for the new jail could also include the later addition of two full floors, with space for an additional 300 beds if needed.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims was pleased with the board’s decision to seek the state funds. “This really provides a facility for the future. I definitely think we can show a need,” said Mims. “I feel very confident that we can be more than competitive with other counties completing for these same funds.”

Plans have also been proposed to maintain and renovate the existing south annex, or keep a portion open even after new construction is complete. Renovation costs for the building, built in 1947, have been estimated at between $11 million and $15 million.