ORANGE — For the second time in seven months, the Sheriff's Department moved more-serious offenders than usual into the medium-security Theo Lacy Branch Jail here, officials disclosed Wednesday.
Sheriff's officials said jail overcrowding forced them to change their inmate grading system last week to allow them to house at the Theo Lacy jail 16 offenders who previously would have been considered too dangerous for the facility.
Orange officials were incensed by the move, charging that the county has once again broken a 1990 pledge that it would house only medium-security prisoners at Theo Lacy. The branch jail, located near The City Shopping Center and the Orangewood Children's Home, has in the past been used largely for drug offenders and other low-to-medium-risk inmates.
"It seems like the situation just seems to escalate, with the risk to the community growing," said Orange Councilman William G. Steiner, who is also the director of the Orangewood home. "The stakes for us are getting higher."
The city is already suing the county, charging that county officials have endangered the community by placing more serious offenders at Theo Lacy last November and has backed out of its pledge to cap the inmate population.
The Board of Supervisors, hoping to curb the county's growing shortage of jail beds, in January approved an expansion plan for Theo Lacy that could mean an additional 900 beds in coming years. The city's attempt to block that plan could go to trial by summer, lawyers in the case say.
When that plan was approved, Sheriff Brad Gates disclosed for the first time that two months earlier--last November--his department had been forced to change its classification system to allow several dozen more serious offenders into Theo Lacy and the James A. Musick Branch Jail in Lake Forest.
Few details were available at that time, however, as to the type of inmates affected by the new classification system.
Orange officials said they have been able to get more specifics this time about the types of inmates who were moved into Theo Lacy last weekend--and they say they are worried by what they have seen.
In order to avoid violating a federal court order on jail overcrowding, Sheriff's Department officials last weekend moved into Theo Lacy 16 offenders who in the past were convicted of armed robbery or assault with a deadly weapon, according to Assistant Sheriff John (Rocky) Hewitt.
In the past, these inmates would have been considered maximum security if the armed robbery or assault offense had occurred within the past five years, Hewitt said. But department officials changed the grading system temporarily last Friday to reduce that time span to two or three years, he said.
Hewitt acknowledged that "anytime you change the criteria, there's a certain amount of risk" for the community, but he said the new system was imposed only on an emergency basis because of overcrowding.
"These are still medium-security prisoners. We just had to adjust the criteria," Hewitt said. "We're trying to do everything we can to appease people, but we can't violate the federal court order (on overcrowding). . . . That's the overriding concern."
Geoffrey K. Willis, one of the lawyers representing the City of Orange in its lawsuit against the county, said he plans to cite the housing of the 16 prisoners in the city's suit to show a pattern of community endangerment.
"They basically have taken more dangerous felons . . . and housed them directly across from a shopping center," he said. "And that's inappropriate."