Could we convert the county courthouse into jail space?

In an article last summer, I identified Stockton’s five-ugliest buildings. Among those buildings was the San Joaquin County Courthouse, which has been much maligned both for its lack of functionality as well as its uninspiring aesthetics. Next year, the county will begin construction of a new, 12-story courthouse located on the current site of Hunter Square, directly west of the current courthouse. The completion date is slated for 2016, at which point we will have to ask ourselves: What will become of the old courthouse next door?

The current plans call for the building to be demolished and replaced by a public plaza a long with an underground parking structure. I am the usually the first person to advocate for public spaces, and I think that if the current courthouse is demolished, a new plaza would be a very nice addition to downtown. However, I am also aware that county jail space has been a hot topic as of late. With that in mind, it seems like a perfectly reasonable question to ask: could the current county courthouse be converted into jail space?

scl courthouse old

The current county courthouse is slated for demolition in a few years. Can it be converted to jail space instead?

Let me preface this article by acknowledging that adding more jail space is not a cure-all for crime and does not address deeper issues of the criminal justice system. This is not an article encouraging higher incarceration rates or expanding rehabilitation programs or anything like that. Instead, I am making the assumption that the county needs more jail space, and needs to acquire this space in a cost-effective manner. With that in mind, here is why I think converting the existing courthouse into jail space could be a practical move for the county.

The current jail is overcrowded, leading to early releases

Officials often cite the county’s lack of jail space as a major problem with crime deterrence. Because beds at the county jail are always filled, the county must release inmates to make space. This emboldens criminals who know that they can be arrested and released the same day. A county civil grand jury concluded this year that lack of space contributes to higher crime in the region as criminals who otherwise would have been locked up are instead released due to lack of space and go on to commit more crimes. For example, I recall a story several years ago where a Stockton officer arrested a would-be car thief, only to arrest that same person later in the day for the same offense because there wasn’t enough space for him at the jail. Even if incarceration rates decline in the future, it may not be enough to offset the county’s projected population growth.

It would (potentially) be cheaper than building a new jail

With overcrowding becoming an increasingly pressing issue, county officials have been actively looking for ways to expand jail space for several years. Officials had considered using $80 million in state funds to expand the current jail, but that plan was nixed earlier this summer as the $70 million annual operating price tag was deemed too steep. But instead of building whole new structures, it may be possible to rehab an older building to achieve the same result at a fraction of the cost.

I won’t pretend to know how much it would take to convert a courthouse to a jail, but logic dictates that rehabbing an existing building is generally much more cost effective than building a brand new one. At about seven stories, I imagine several hundred more units could easily be added. And it’s not as if the county would be retrofitting an old warehouse or apartment store: the courthouse already holds inmates waiting for trail, so certain security features are probably already in place.

Lower transportation costs

Rendering of the new SJ courthouse slated for completion in 2016.

A long with the potential savings from the renovation of an existing facility, think of the money that could be saved on transportation. Right now, inmates must be transported about seven miles from the site of the current county jail into downtown to go to the courthouse. Think of the amount of times this route must be traveled. That is a lot of gas, car maintenance, and time. But if there were a detention facility right next door to the courthouse, there would be no transportation costs associated with moving inmates next door.

Many other cities have downtown jails

Some may roll their eyes at this argument on the basis that the last thing Downtown Stockton needs is a jail. Who wants criminals living downtown? This would be a fair argument if it wasn’t for the fact that most major US cities keep detention facilities downtown for the efficiencies mentioned earlier. The list includes cities such as Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, San Diego, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and even Sacramento.

The more appropriate question seems to be, what cities don’t have a downtown jail?

The current courthouse is a part of Stockton history

As ugly as it is, the courthouse has been a downtown mainstay since 1963. Some may feel that tearing down this building for a new one is the same mistake made when we tore down our last courthouse. Who’s to say that green tinted windows, pebble facades and nuclear fall-out shelters won’t be back in vogue in 50 years?

This is just a thought. It may very well be the case that this option has already been considered, or that plans for demolition are set in stone. However, given our region’s need to plan efficiently for the future, I think this could be an interesting solution to a complex problem. What are your thoughts? I am assuming I missed some aspects of what goes into building and maintaining a jail. If anyone has more knowledge on this subject please feel free to share!

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Categories: Community Commentary

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia created SCL in March of 2012. Garcia is a Stockton native with a background in urban policy and planning, holding a Bachelor's Degree from UCLA as well as a Master's Degree in Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. He currently serves as the Policy Director at the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. David was also COO at Ten Space, a real estate development firm focused exclusively on Downtown Stockton, and continues to advise on their projects. Prior to that, he worked three years as a researcher/analyst for a Congressional research agency in Washington, DC. The views expressed on this site are entirely of the author's

4 Comments on “Could we convert the county courthouse into jail space?”

  1. Jon Seisa
    October 17, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

    I wholeheartedly opt for the new urban plaza design, geared towards vaster community use and appreciation by the (un-incarcerated) citizenry and to boost tourism, which I read is going to target an ambitious design space on par and caliber with that of San Francisco’s Union Square. This would be tremendous for Downtown Stockton, and far better than a jail, IMHO. Stockton really needs to start establishing high aesthetic urban upgrades like this if it expects to be taken seriously as a progressive cosmopolitan city and destination for outsiders’ tourism dollars. I hope they integrate some classicism in the design, because it never goes out of style and is agelessly enduring.


    But yes, you are definitely right David about the uniqueness in correctional institute design and new generation jail design; it’s guided by established best standards that are extremely specific in mandatory requirements put forth in collaboration with the National Institute of Corrections, NIC, American Jail Association, AJA, the American Correctional Association, ACA, and the Committee on Architecture for Justice of the American Institute of Architects, and unfortunately the linear layout of the old SJC courthouse doesn’t appear to adapt very well to those current requirements.

    What is called “intermittent surveillance design” (linear design) is an outdated mode of jail design used in older jails, where there is a lack of continuous observation because individual cells are placed along lengthy linear corridors that prevent jail staff from observing occupants in unison and continuously.

    The new design approach is called “direct supervision design” having a central in-pod control station and the cells encompass its periphery as well as a central communal “day room”, so the design layout is circular or octagonal. High security inmates that pose a threat are put in “indirect supervision design” (remote surveillance) that are maximum supervised pods supported with electronic surveillance where there is no contact with the central in-pod control station/officer that is enclosed as opposed to the direct supervision design where the officer engages with the inmates.

    The Los Angeles County Twin Towers Correctional Facility is a prime example:

    Thus, it appears that the old courthouse would not be an ideal jail conversion candidate due to its linear structural layout. Correctional facility design has developed into a real science these days.

    It’s unfortunate that the jail expansion plan was defunded, but since supervisors Carlos Villapudua, Larry Ruhstaller and Steve Bestolarides successfully defeated the jail expansion plan with their neigh votes, then the onus is obviously on them to come up with a viable solution to the dilemma they have created. I think they said they want to shift some of the funds towards preventive medicines, like mental health and other areas to deprogram criminality, rather than build more jails. Though that sounds more humane and noble for the criminals, I really don’t know how practical it is in light of the current crisis where law-abiding taxpaying citizens’ safety will be in higher jeopardy due to the criminals being released early and roaming the streets and neighborhoods of Stockton.

  2. Bill Fuhs
    October 17, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

    More jail space is the last thing that Stockton needs…………. more schools might be the first.

  3. Anthony
    October 20, 2013 at 4:40 am #

    I support the idea of a major urban public space in downtown. It would be great to see Stockton take serious initiative to promote a much more “pedestrian friendly” environment in the city’s center. This would just be another piece of the puzzle that would, with all the right ingredients, create a much more dynamic and livable center for residents and other visitors (ie. shoppers, tourists, etc.).

    Still, it makes me question again why not create this public square with what is already there? Adding an upgraded, modern, and creative commercial/(residential??) public/private development with the bones of the soon to be replaced courthouse building. Is the current courthouse building in that bad of shape? There are a million creative ways to attempt an adaptive re-use and remodel that could quite possible become a showpiece of Stockton’s ingenuity and propel it’s “brand” of urban city rebirth.

    A rebirth will happen but only if the city moves into the next level of urban redevelopment.

    Time for Stockton to think more like larger progressive cities and take it’s brand to the next level.

  4. Jon Seisa
    October 23, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

    Also, if they could convert the courthouse into a correctional facility, it would not have the thin sheet glass windowed-walls on its 2 major facades; instead, it would be converted into an unsightly massive concrete and steel block, like a foreboding mausoleum in the middle of downtown. Believe me, it would be an eye-sore and not aesthetically pleasing… just something to think about.

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