So far this year, in an effort to comply with federal court orders limiting the population of its jails, Orange County has ticketed and released about 20,000 people who otherwise might have been locked up.
In the week ending Nov. 14 alone, more than 500 people were brought to the jail after being arrested and then released simply because there was no place to put them while they awaited trial.
Eighteen months after Sheriff Brad Gates launched his controversial cite-and-release program under court pressure to reduce jail overcrowding, the county continues to wrestle with the dilemma of too little space for too many inmates. And it appears that the cite-and-release program will continue, at least until a new county jail is completed in the mid-1990s.
"It's a very serious problem," said Municipal Judge Gary P. Ryan, an opponent of the cite-and-release program. "I am concerned . . . but I can't build a new jail."
Although law-enforcement officials say there has been no significant increase in crime in the county because of the program, authorities agree that the lack of a threat of jail time has hampered enforcement efforts against drunk driving and prostitution.
Besides suspected prostitutes and drunk drivers, those released under the program have included people accused of resisting arrest, possession of concealed firearms, petty theft, disturbing the peace, public drunkenness and underage possession of alcohol.
Ryan and Mothers Against Drunk Driving were among the first to complain when the cite-and-release program was announced by Gates shortly after a federal court order capped the population of the central men's jail in Santa Ana.
Armed with a new state law, authorities had recently announced a get-tough stand against drunk driving that involved mandatory jail time.
And those stopped for driving under the influence could expect to spend at least a night in jail while they were being booked.
Now, however, that has changed.
Sheriff's Department records show that in the week ending Nov. 14, 168 people arrested on suspicion of drunk driving were cited and released.
Janet Cater, Orange County director of MADD, said she is worried that, without jail time, drunk driving might regain an image as a minor offense.
"Those who hang out in bars--the word gets out very quickly," she said. "The fear of jail was the strongest deterrent the system had."
In addition to the cite-and-release program, Orange County has been freeing some convicted criminals early. But so far, inmates have been released no more than five days before the ends of their sentences, and then only if they have shown good behavior while in jail, said Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Richard Olson.
Santa Ana Police Officer Cliff Seward said his department has not kept statistics or attributed any specific increase in crime to the cite-and-release program. But he said the program "certainly has contributed to the problem" of enforcing laws against prostitution, drunk driving and assault.
Don Blankenship, president of the Santa Ana police union, said the release program has hurt the morale of street officers, who have had to watch the criminals they arrest go directly back into the community.
"They have to wonder if this is just a totally futile effort or if they are really making a dent in crime," he said. "Some of them, I'm sure, think it's like taking your finger out of a glass of water--that's the dent they leave."
Judge Ryan said there also is an unseen effect on judicial decisions.
"It makes our sentencing task more difficult," he said. "I think there are occasions where you don't put people in jail because there's not enough room."
It is not a unique situation. Several other California counties are under similar court orders because their jails are overflowing. And many are participating in cite-and-release programs of some sort, said Jim Shepard, a spokesman for the state Board of Corrections.
In Santa Clara County, some sentenced prisoners are being released because of jail overcrowding before they have served any part of their sentences, said Santa Clara County Sheriff's Sgt. Cary Colla. He said those being released were convicted of nonviolent crimes.
In the last three months, Santa Clara County has released 1,331 convicted criminals who had not even begun to serve their sentences, Colla said.
In Alameda County, nonviolent convicted criminals are serving an average of about 50% of their sentences under an early-release program necessitated by jail overcrowding, said Alameda County Sheriff's Lt. Richard Bond.
And plans are under way for an early-release program in Los Angeles County, where U.S. District Judge William P. Gray--who is monitoring conditions in Orange County's jails--recently issued an order requiring that jail overcrowding be reduced.
The Los Angeles County jail system has an inmate capacity of 13,388, but its population on Oct. 30 was 22,323, said Sheriff's Deputy Robert Nimtz.
Orange County's jail capacity, according to the rating by the state Board of Corrections, is 2,815. On Nov. 13, the population reached 3,807.
Judge Gray's order, however, applies only to the housing cells on the third and fourth floors of the central men's jail in Santa Ana. He has limited those areas to 1,296 prisoners. Last week, those floors contained a maximum of 1,263 prisoners.
Officials agree that the county will continue to grapple with those numbers, at least until a new jail is completed.
"I don't think it's a short-term thing," Blankenship said. The construction of a new jail "is going to have to stop being political. They're going to have to see what's best for the county first and what's best for each city second."