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?
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
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!