Santa Maria and Lompoc are collaborating on a stop-gap plan to house arrestees, a scheme that helps both cities.

For Santa Maria, using the Lompoc jail is a matter of necessity. County Sheriff Bill Brown opted to close the Santa Maria holding facility in mid-summer, blaming budget problems.

For Lompoc, having other cities use its jail means a few extra dollars in revenue.

There are other benefits, not the least of which is that temporarily housing arrestees from Santa Maria will prevent Santa Maria police officers from having to make the 130-mile round trip from North County to the Main Jail in Goleta, which costs local taxpayers and removes Santa Maria officers from the line of duty while they play taxi driver.

We mentioned that this is a stop-gap solution to an old problem — more people being arrested and jailed than there is space available to hold them. That problem grew significantly when the sheriff opted to close Santa Maria’s holding facilities.

The stop-gap part is that the county is in the process of building a new North County Jail, the long-promised solution to the problem of housing inmates while they serve time.

The latest report indicates the new, 346-bed, state-of-the-art jail will be ready to open in October of next year. However, being open and being ready for prisoners are two separate things. The facility likely won’t be ready for a hard opening until the spring of 2019.

The timetable makes it abundantly clear that Santa Maria officials had to make a deal, in this case with Lompoc to use their facilities, or the cost in dollars and lost on-the-street police manpower in Santa Maria could have been a big problem.

This is a problem that could have, and should have been solved years ago. The Main Jail has been in a state of near-crisis for decades, with chronic overcrowding that has resulted in the courts ordering early release of prisoners.

New jails are incredibly expensive. The North County facility’s base cost exceeds $111 million. In years past, that’s money county officials felt they could not spend. But thanks to a state grant, much of the new jail’s expense is being paid by California taxpayers, rather than placing the full burden on county taxpayers.

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It is, however, somewhat disheartening to learn that even when the North County Jail starts accepting inmates, there likely will still be a crowding issue to contend with. For one thing, the Goleta Main Jail is a relic, and one has to wonder how much longer it can be safely operated. A recent county grand jury report revealed some core deficiencies.

This is all the predicted result of state voters deciding years ago to get tougher on crime, which sounds great in theory, but in real life creates all kinds of collateral issues, the resolution of which can be very costly.

Another reality is that jails everywhere are being filled with people, many of whom could be diverted to different kinds of programs designed to correct criminal behavior. A good example are programs that emphasize educating kids on how to avoid a life of crime. The costs of such programs are exponentially less than incarceration expenses.

County officials are struggling with managing the legalization of marijuana, so this may be the right time to have a broader conversation about achieving some semblance of balance between crime and punishment.

Meanwhile, we applaud officials in Santa Maria and Lompoc for finding a temporary solution to the jail problem.

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