Large majorities of residents agreed, with 93% saying they believed mandatory jail time was warranted for criminals convicted of assault and battery; 85% wanted drunk drivers to spend time in jail and 75% supported mandatory jail sentences for drug users. Majorities opposed mandatory jail sentences for prostitutes and petty thieves.
Proponents of new jails in other areas have often struggled to persuade the public that more cells translate into safer communities. But The Times Orange County Poll suggests that Orange County residents already rank jails among their leading social and law enforcement concerns. And 62% said they think building a new jail will cut crime and improve public safety.
"Together with crime and gang violence, which 63% say is a big problem in Orange County, jail overcrowding is seen as by far the biggest law enforcement problem today," Baldassare said.
Even when juxtaposed against an array of other social issues, new jail construction ranked high. Nearly half--49%--said building a new jail should be a high priority for the county; another 31% said it was a medium priority.
Only the need to improve the public school system ranked higher, with 68% putting it in the high-priority category. Jails ranked slightly higher than hospitals, clinics and social services for the poor, the survey found.
"I think jails and prisons are a necessary evil," said Bob Salley of Orange. "Letting people go is not the answer."
County supervisors generally agree, though they, like many of those surveyed, strongly support exploring alternatives to incarceration, such as electronic monitoring systems to keep track of criminals when they are confined to their homes. In the poll, 80% favored trying to streamline court proceedings, 72% favored sentencing criminals to perform community service, 61% favored monitoring convicts serving time under house arrest, while only 41% favored creating more halfway houses in residential areas.
While those programs have encountered little opposition, the question of where to put a new jail is a different story. That issue has long stood as one of the county's most bitterly debated topics, pitting members of the County Board of Supervisors against each other in determined opposition.
Gypsum Canyon, just east of Anaheim, is the board majority's site of choice. But four supervisors' votes are needed to acquire the property through condemnation, and only three support that site. Negotiations are under way with the Irvine Co. to determine whether it would be willing to sell the land, but company officials have indicated that they intend to build homes there.
For the two supervisors who oppose Gypsum Canyon--Don R. Roth and Gaddi H. Vasquez--concerns about the cost of the facility have dovetailed with its perceived political consequences. Gypsum Canyon is in Vasquez's district and is just a few miles from Roth's.
The poll, however, suggests that support for Gypsum Canyon is strong countywide. Even in North County, where the jail would be located, opinion narrowly favors construction: 50% of the North County residents said they supported Gypsum Canyon, compared to 44% who opposed it.
When reminded of the federal court order and early-release policies, a majority of North County residents even said they would support taxing themselves to build the jail, which would go in their own back yards.
"There's majority support for Gypsum Canyon in all regions of the county," Baldassare said. "It was a surprise to me to find that even in the North County, where we've heard so much about opposition, 50% support Gypsum Canyon. Some people in North County are willing to overlook their self-interest in bringing forward the jail proposal, which they feel would mean safer streets."
That's not to say that support is unanimous in the North County, however. Or that the issue will simply go away because a majority of voters backs Gypsum Canyon.
"This is an emotional issue for us," said Heidi Jarrett, a poll respondent who lives in Yorba Linda, a few miles from the Gypsum Canyon site. "It's scary for people who live around here. This is a quiet community, and it's law-abiding, and it's safe. We've been worried about this jail for a long time."
HOW THE POLL WAS CONDUCTED
The Times Orange County Poll was conducted Jan. 14-18 by Mark Baldassare & Associates. The telephone survey of 600 Orange County adults was conducted on weekday nights using a computer-generated random sample of listed and unlisted telephone numbers. For a sample of this size, the margin of error is plus or minus 4%. Sampling error is just one type of error that can affect opinion polls. Results can also be affected by question wording, survey timing and other variables. All responses were anonymous, but some agreed to be re-interviewed later for a news story.
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