Under pressure to find long-term solutions to jail overcrowding, the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider a series of proposals, including a politically explosive study of whether to take some control away from the Sheriff's Department.
Although Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates is said to oppose any reorganization, the lawman, who was reelected to a fourth term last month with 64% of the vote, has withheld comment.
Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Robert Rivas would only say: "We are cooperating in any continuing studies in regard to the jail. It's still too early to draw any conclusions or make any recommendations."
Aides to several supervisors said both the board and the Sheriff's Department have nothing to lose by a study of the cost-effectiveness of operating the jail with lower-paid correctional officers instead of deputies.
Additionally, there is an emerging consensus for trying other once-controversial measures to lower the inmate population at the county's main jail in Santa Ana, including at-home incarceration, adding beds at a halfway house and making more prisoners eligible for a county parole program.
And Tuesday, Supervisor Harriett Wieder is expected to formally propose the construction of the county's first "sobering-up" station for public drunks.
A Wieder aide, Rod Speer, said she will suggest that the county join with the City of Santa Ana--which last year arrested 280 to 300 public drunks a month--to fund a detoxification center. In April, Gates barred the jailing of public inebriates and others facing misdemeanor charges. In response, Santa Ana is now taking only about 70 drunks into custody each month--often letting otherwise-healthy inebriates "sleep it off" in public parks, according to Santa Ana police officials. With annual costs of County Jail operations projected as tripling over the next 15 years to $97.4 million, Wieder said, "we cannot continue business as usual."
"If we continue this way," she added, "we'd be spending all the county general fund budget for the sheriff. That's ridiculous. That's not the only service the county is responsible for."
Supervisor Bruce Nestande, who asked County Administrative Officer Larry Parrish to prepare the report on jail-overcrowding problems and potential solutions that will be considered Tuesday, said he was concerned that the Sheriff's Department had become too big a bureaucracy to effectively deal with overcrowding.
"It's in the nature of the job that he (Gates) sees things differently than somebody whose only job is to house prisoners," Nestande said.
"That's why I think we need a separate agency that would, on its own independent track, give us a set of priorities not biased by conflicting concerns."
Although Gates has said supervisors failed to heed his warnings about the overcrowding problem, some board members note privately that the sheriff at budget time consistently lobbies for high-priced items, such as last year's $1.4 million for two patrol helicopters and an earlier laser fingerprint-detection system, not new jails.
But Wieder, reflecting a conciliatory tone taken by some board members, said she would prefer that any study of jail reorganization be a cooperative effort.
"I'd like to see this done in conjunction with the sheriff," she said.
The county seems to have scrapped a proposal to levy fees on residents in the unincorporated county "islands" in central, north and west Orange County to recoup the high cost of patrols in those isolated areas. Such a fee would generate funds for additional jail space and beds.
"We would view it as a tax on patrol services to deal with the jail-overcrowding problem," Speer said. "And that didn't sit quite right with anyone."
Eight years ago, a federal judge ordered Orange County to end overcrowding in the main jail for men. Last year, when nearly 500 inmates slept on floors, the judge held the county in criminal contempt for failure to comply.
Remedial measures such as tents, trailers and expansion of existing facilities were undertaken. Still, Gates was unable to bring down the number of inmates to caps set by U.S. District Judge William P. Gray.
Short-Term Jail Plan
It wasn't until early this year, when County Counsel Adrian Kuyper warned board members that they, too, could face personal fines and jail if the judge's orders were not met, that supervisors began gearing up for a wholesale attack on the problem.
At the urging of staff, supervisors launched plans for a short-term, 1,500-bed jail that could be built quickly and economically.
Supervisors, in a 4-1 vote, settled on county land near Anaheim Stadium for a medium- to maximum-security facility.
Anaheim officials have opposed the site, as have two state legislators, casting doubt on the county's ability to obtain state jail funds for a facility at that location.
Even if a short-term site can be built, estimates of the jail population suggest there will still be a shortage of 3,000 to 6,000 beds by the year 2000.