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O.C. Booking Fee Called Boon to Those Arrested : Charge: Policy may have increased number of suspects released immediately. Cities seek alternatives.

October 19, 1992|RENE LYNCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Financially strapped Orange County fattened its wallet last year when it began charging cities a $154 fee for most inmates booked into County Jail.

But the real beneficiaries of the new policy may be the increasing number of criminal suspects who are arrested and immediately released from custody instead of facing at least a few hours behind bars.

Bookings at Orange County Jail dropped 11% during the 1991-1992 fiscal year as many cities began to seek alternatives to the booking fees that netted the county $2.7 million in fiscal 1991-92, law enforcement officials said. During the fiscal year, the fee was increased to $158 per booking.

During the first half of that year, the most recent statistics available, arrests in Orange County remained stable, according to the state Department of Justice.

"It's a cost that few cities can afford. We can't," said Garden Grove Police Chief Stanley L. Knee, whose department must release arrestees suspected of nonviolent misdemeanors as a way to cut back on the several thousands of dollars the city spent on booking fees last year.

In its year-end report, the 1991-1992 Orange County Grand Jury concluded that county residents have "less protection from these criminals" because of the increase in suspects being cited and released in the wake of booking fees.

The grand jury report said that law enforcement officials are doing the best they can in a difficult situation but that releasing people on a court citation requires police to put their faith in the same people suspected of criminal activity.

"Criminal suspects are immediately returned to the streets with the hope that they will appear in court (and not commit any additional crimes in the meantime)," according to the report.

People suspected of violent crimes and felonies are not eligible for release on a citation to appear in court, county and local law enforcement officials said. But those arrested for such misdemeanors as drug possession, prostitution and drunk driving are routinely given tickets and told to show up in court.

Prosecutor Brent F. Romney, director of Orange County Municipal Court operations, said he is not aware of any proven link between increased crime and criminal suspects being released with citations.

"I would not say the streets are less safe from people who commit misdemeanors because they typically spend less time in jail anyway because of overcrowding," he said.

But it does not take long for the word to get out on the street that police are limited in their ability to arrest suspects, law enforcement officials said.

"It does have an impact on how you manage crime because the booking process is a powerful tool for police officers to take someone off the street," Chief Knee said. "When you can't realistically arrest people of nuisance crimes, you really close the door on your ability to maintain order."

"The people on the street know what is going on, that the system is broken down," said Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters, who said his department is particularly disadvantaged because it books largest number of inmates into the County Jail. "Without the ability to hold people, the police are at a disadvantage."

Capt. Jack DeVereaux of the Orange County Sheriff's Department said it is impossible to determine whether more suspects are actually being released on citations now because the jail is often forced to release criminal suspects because of overcrowding.

But Robert Gray, assistant executive officer of the Central Orange County Municipal Court, said his office has seen a substantial increase in the number of cases in which defendants are "cited and released" from custody since booking fees began.

"We have also had some increase in the number of people failing to appear on misdemeanor offenses since the jail started charging booking fees," Gray said.

County statistics do not differentiate between people who were cited and released but failed to appear in court and those who were booked into County Jail but later failed to appear.

But "there is a correlation between citing and releasing and failure to appear," Gray said.

At one point, county officials estimated that booking fees could generate $8 million a year, but because of poor projections and exceptions to the policy, revenue has fallen far short of that goal. State and county law enforcement agencies, such as the Orange County Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol are exempt.

In addition, no arresting agency is billed if a judge orders a suspect booked into custody, officials said.

Still, cities and law enforcement agencies say the booking fee is not a cost they can easily afford and have begun looking at other alternatives to help them cope during tough fiscal times.

The city of Santa Ana is building a temporary jail for about 100 inmates that is expected to open in early 1993. A larger, permanent jail with capacity for more than 400 prisoners will take its place, officials said.

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