The Orange County Board of Supervisors raised the possibility Tuesday of building two jails to speed the process of finding badly needed beds for inmates.
Board Chairman Ralph B. Clark suggested splitting "the project into near-term and long-term approaches" instead of waiting out the search for a new jail site, expected to end next March at the earliest.
Supervisor Roger R. Stanton called for a report Tuesday listing all county-owned sites suitable for a jail for 1,000 to 1,200 inmates and "close to street and/or freeway routes" for easy access to police stations and courts.
Supervisor Bruce Nestande warned that if a smaller jail is built, the search for a jail site to house 4,000 to 6,000 inmates must continue "so that we can provide for the long-term future of Orange County and not just react to the short term."
U.S. District Judge William P. Gray last week ordered Sheriff Brad Gates to appear in court March 20 and show why he should not be held in contempt of court for allowing the population of the main men's jail in downtown Santa Ana to exceed the 1,500 mark three times last month.
A year ago, Gray found the supervisors and Gates in contempt of court for not heeding his 1978 order to end overcrowding in the jail. The judge ordered that the jail population be reduced to 1,500 by Jan. 15 and 1,400 by April 1.
Clark said that if the search for a jail site goes on at its present pace, construction might not start for another three years and that the first prisoners might not move in for five years.
He persuaded the other supervisors to order a county task force to report back Tuesday on whether the process could be speeded up if a smaller jail is built.
Although county officials said it could take a year to prepare environmental reports, as it will for the larger jail, actual construction would be quicker if the jail is smaller and is built on county land rather than private property.
The supervisors said they hoped that their actions would demonstrate to Gray that they are trying to solve the problem.
But Nestande attacked the courts for not telling the supervisors earlier that their actions were insufficient. In 1984, the supervisors decided to "not lay a jail in peoples' backyards, so to speak," but to search for remote areas, Nestande said. Although the board thought it was acting properly, the judge's decision hit the supervisors "like Halley's comet."
"I am contemptuous of the courts and the way they've acted on this issue," Nestande said. "Never once has any court personnel called me and said, 'Bruce, you perhaps ought to consider dual-tracking this whole issue and get something done immediately, and then secondly provide a long-term solution.' We would have done that . . . I just presumed the actions all along we were taking were very responsible actions."