Three decades ago, when San Diego was a bustling Navy town of 400,000, Ken O'Brien was a rookie police officer who, on a busy night, hauled 15 people to jail for a minimum three-day stay.
Today most people who commit misdemeanor crimes are cited and released on the street, without seeing the crowded San Diego County Jail; more than half of the misdemeanor suspects who are taken to jail get out within four hours, and two-thirds of all felons are set free within three days.
San Diego County's crowded jails also have forced police officers to wait in line--often as long as an hour--outside the Central Jail at Front and B streets to deposit prisoners. As a result, many officers today have to work hard to put as many as half a dozen crooks in jail during an eight-hour shift, O'Brien said.
"One of the reasons we have as much crime . . . is we can't get criminals off the street," said O'Brien, now a San Diego deputy police chief. "We take people under the influence of narcotics, people involved in prostitution and people with (arrest) warrants to jail and they are released in a matter of minutes.
"The public is not aware of what the hell is happening," O'Brien added. "The system is being abused. . . . In my day, it was fast, effective and efficient. The cop on the street today is absolutely, totally frustrated in trying to get his job done."
Police administrators throughout San Diego say that overcrowded conditions at county jails hamper their efforts to investigate crimes, enforce laws and put a dent in local drug trafficking. At the same time, they complain that police resources throughout the county are stretched thin during busy nights and weekends, when patrol officers are tied up escorting prisoners to the Central Jail.
Sheriff's administrators who run the main jail say their hands are tied. A 1980 ruling by Superior Court Judge James Focht ordered Sheriff John Duffy to keep the inmate population--which had reached 1,500--to 750. The main jail's capacity is 730. The average daily population over the last several months has been 750.
"We think these people should be taken to court to answer charges, but we cannot afford to do so," said Capt. C.J. Roache, commander of the main jail. "The reality is we can't keep them here. There would be no place for them to sleep."
Roache said that whenever the jail population exceeds 750, his deputies raise the minimum amount for accepting suspects on outstanding warrants from $500 to $1,000. Thus, someone who is picked up by police on $900 in previous warrants for failing to show up in court cannot be taken to jail.
When the jail is full, deputies also alert law enforcement agencies throughout the county to ease up on arrests. This is done nearly every weekend, Roache said.
"If we're in a position where we're tight . . . we'll call the arresting agencies and say, 'Look, this is the situation we're in. If there's any way you can avoid making arrests, please do so,' " Roache said. "If I have one bed, I'd much rather save it for a murderer than a drunk in public."
This policy creates a conflict between deputies working inside the jail to relieve overcrowding conditions and police officers working on the streets to apprehend criminals.
San Diego Deputy Police Chief Norm Stamper said he finds it "incredible" that an officer cannot take a wanted criminal to jail because the dollar amount on the arrest warrant does not exceed $1,000.
"We stop a guy who is our local version of a fugitive . . . and we can't take him to jail because he has $600 in warrants," Stamper said. "It's become a game out there, and (the criminals) know it like we do."
County jails house two classes of inmates--those who are charged with crimes and are awaiting court hearings, and those who have been convicted and sentenced to less than a year in custody.
Municipal Court Judge H. Ronald Domnitz said current procedures that require misdemeanor suspects to appear in court are clearly not working.
"Our bail system is a joke for misdemeanors because (Sheriff Duffy) lets them out," Domnitz said. "I could put a $2,000, $3,000 bail on drunk drivers and they're out. They pick them up on a second or third warrant, and he lets them out."
Domnitz acknowledged that because of the court limit on jail population, the Sheriff's Department must release inmates. He said the solution is to build more jails.
Sheriff's deputies at the Central Jail release 700 to 1,200 persons each month who are arrested on misdemeanor charges, including assault, theft and narcotics. In most cases, these people are let go as fast as the deputies can prepare the paper work.
In the past, suspects frequently accompanied the officers who arrested them out the jail door. To save police officers the embarrassment and keep them from getting angry at the sheriff, these persons are now held in a room equipped with telephones for several minutes, then escorted to the back door.