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It's About Time

July 14, 1986

After years of dragging anchor not only on providing more jail space but also on catching up to other counties in modernizing jail operations to make them more efficient and more humane, the Orange County Board of Supervisors changed course last Wednesday and sailed ahead on a list of innovations.

One of the most significant, finally, was the board's order to its staff to work out details for establishing a sobering-up station, or detoxification center, for public drunks. The action, which was pushed by Supervisor Harriett Wieder, was long overdue.

San Diego and Los Angeles have centers where drunks are treated as medical problems, not criminals, at daily costs far lower than what Orange County has been spending to lock drunks in jail. Orange County has no such centers, and, as the last county Grand Jury noted, spends "zero dollars out of (its) general fund" on alcohol-recovery programs. It is, the jury added, "in the 14th Century" compared to surrounding counties. That may be a rather harsh assessment. We would have put it in the 17th Century at least.

One factor that put added pressure on the board to finally act to provide some kind of jail diversion program for public drunks was the decision by Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates, a strong supporter of the sobering-up stations, to stop booking these drunks in the overcrowded County Jail. Gates acted in response to a federal court order to reduce the number of prisoners jammed into existing jail space.

The staff study should be completed and a center opened as soon as possible so that police will have a place to direct the drunks, instead of leaving them lying in doorways and in the street, as many of them now do.

Another approach long needed that the county board ordered last week was a detailed study on whether county jail facilities could be run as safely and as economically with lower-paid correctional officers, instead of the higher-salaried sworn deputies who now serve as jailers. The idea is not new. It is used successfully elsewhere. It could work here, too.

So could some of the other innovations such as the weekend arraignment of prisoners, the confinement of nonviolent prisoners under strict supervision in their homes instead of in jail, and using a video-camera system between the jail and the court to arraign prisoners and accept pleas.

Some of the approaches will save time and money. Some will reduce jail overcrowding. Some will be more humane. All are worthy of the action that the county board finally gave them.

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