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Action Needed on County Jail

March 09, 1986

On March 20, Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates is scheduled to appear in federal court to explain to U.S. District Judge William P. Gray why he violated the judge's orders prohibiting overcrowding at the Orange County Jail.

It was a few days short of a year ago, on March 18, 1985, that Gates and the Orange County Board of Supervisors were held in criminal contempt by Judge Gray for ignoring his order issued seven years earlier to resolve jail overcrowding.

The judge's amazing patience in waiting for the county to improve jail conditions before finally taking action may have lulled the board into thinking it could continue to drag its feet. We hope Judge Gray dispels any such notion on March 20.

Gates went into court Friday and obtained an order permitting him to release selected inmates up to five days early in order to relieve overcrowding at the jail. But the county board and sheriff should be doing more to comply with the spirit and the letter of the judge's order.

In the seven years before the contempt order was issued, neither the board nor Gates aggressively attacked the problem. After the contempt citation last March, the county did alleviate overcrowded conditions at the main jail by building new facilities at the branch jails. But they are too little, too late.

And obviously not enough to meet all of the conditions laid down by Judge Gray for reducing the main jail's population of 2,000 last year, to 1,500 by Jan. 15 and 1,400 by April 1.

In a report to the judge that prompted the March 20 hearing, the overseer appointed by the court disclosed that the men's main jail exceeded the 1,500 prisoner limit three times between Feb. 11 and Feb 25. And Gates has already warned the supervisors "of an alarming increase in the inmate population" that will make it difficult for him to meet the new April 1 ceiling.

The county should be doing more in diversion programs. It is still the only county in the state that does not use a release system that issues citations to nonviolent defendants accused of lesser crimes instead of jailing them. Other prisoners who pose no threat to society and are being held for minor offenses should be released on parole. And inmates booked on alcohol-abuse and mental illness charges should be treated at detoxification and mental health centers, not foolishly and needlessly jammed into the jail and court system, losing out on needed care.

Lawrence G. Grossman, the court-appointed special master for the jail, also proposes a home-monitoring system for prisoners assigned to work-furlough programs. Under his plan, the prisoners, who are allowed to work outside during the day and return to the jail each night, would be confined at home instead. They would wear bracelets equipped with transmitters that would alert a computer if they wandered more than about 150 feet from their home. A similar system is scheduled for use in San Diego County beginning July 1.

Any sensible approach will help. But diversion programs won't solve the overcrowding problem. The only thing that will is a new jail. Everyone involved agrees on that.

The Legislature has placed a $495-million state jail bond issue proposal on the June ballot that could provide $50 million for a new jail in Orange County. There is other money available from previously approved bond issues. The bigger problem now, however, is where to locate a new county jail, and getting the supervisors to make that official determination.

The county board has been tap-dancing around that decision for years, trying to avoid the political fallout. It has conducted several site studies, all of which understandably produced resident opposition whenever a specific location was identified as a possibility. Another study is now under way. It would seem that the board is waiting for some residents to jump forward and say, "We want a jail in our community," but that is as unrealistic as expecting Judge Gray to ignore the county's intransigence. One of these days, the supervisors are going to have to assume the leadership role to which they were elected and choose a jail site, as politically unpopular as that might be.

In the meantime, the county is about two years behind its original goal of opening a new jail by 1990. Judge Gray's contempt order last year didn't seem to speed up that timetable. Maybe whatever he has in mind at the March 20 hearing will. Something should.

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