Contra Costa County will spend $1.75 million in federal coronavirus relief on 24 new deputy sheriff positions, despite dozens of county residents imploring the Board of Supervisors not to use that funding for law enforcement.

The 24 deputies, including one lieutenant, will be tasked primarily with supporting the mental health of inmates at a remodeled Martinez Detention Facility.

Sheriff David Livingston told supervisors on Aug. 4 that the deputies will provide “enhanced supervision” of inmates with mental health issues, allowing them more time out of their cells, more time for visits, more mental health programming, more timely medical appointments and intake that is more confidential and private.

In addition to approving the spending on deputies, the supervisors allocated $16.3 million from the county’s general fund to retrofitting the Martinez jail to create some larger cells.

Both allocations were part of a larger board discussion on Tuesday about Contra Costa County’s 2020-21 budget, the bulk of which was approved last week. This week, the board heard answers to questions the supervisors posed to various county department heads on Aug. 4.

A controversial decision

The supervisors have heard criticism for weeks about spending federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds on new deputies (a 25th new position is being funded separately). And again on Tuesday, numerous public comments supported the concept of “defunding,” in this case shifting Sheriff’s Office funding to various social services.

“We should be using these CARES Act funds to invest in critical health services to reduce the harm being levied by the pandemic,” Katherine Walley of Walnut Creek told the supervisors, “rather than spending this money on policing.”

Dan Geiger, coordinator of the Contra Costa Budget Justice Coalition, questioned the wisdom of using one-time CARES funds to fund permanent deputy positions.

County Administrator David Twa said the $1.75 million in CARES funds going to deputies compares to $150 million in CARES money destined for health services.

Supervisor John Gioia said he has not been shown why the Martinez jail needs 24 deputies to render the mental health-related services the sheriff wants; for that reason, he was the dissenter in the 4-to-1 vote to approve that spending.

“We should be using these CARES Act funds to invest in critical health services to reduce the harm being levied by the pandemic, rather than spending this money on policing.”

Katherine Walley, Walnut Creek resident

Other issues the supervisors discussed on Tuesday will not be resolved in the 2020-21 budget. One is the fate of the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility near Byron, commonly called the Byron Boys Ranch.

The county Probation Department has proposed closing the Boys Ranch in 2022. District Attorney Diana Becton wants to close Juvenile Hall in Martinez instead, and many public commenters who called in to Tuesday’s supervisors meeting voiced support for that alternative.

That decision is among several issues to be taken up by the Reimagine Youth Justice Task Force, which will include input from both Becton and county Probation Chief Esa Ehmen-Krause.

County Supervisor Candace Andersen said the board will host a public presentation on the issue at its Oct. 20 meeting.