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COMMENTARY ON JAILS : We're in Trouble When Lawbreakers Thumb Noses at Courts : Everyone agrees we need another county jail. Now if only residents would accept such a facility in their district.

August 15, 1993|JAMES L. SMITH | James L. Smith is an Orange County Superior Court judge. He has been selected to become the court's presiding judge effective Jan. 1.

The judge was having a real "bad hair day." It took two clerks just to carry the list of cases on the morning calendar; a memo from the presiding judge suggested that the budget for trial court operations was to be reduced by more than 25% next year; the prosecuting and defense attorneys were refusing to discuss cases with each other; and to top it off, in the audience was a familiar face that the judge was certain belonged to a person sentenced to serve time in the Orange County Jail just the preceding week.

Following the management maxim that you should always do the least important things first, the judge directed the bailiff to place the familiar face, and the body attached to it, in custody--he had to be an escapee.

Oops! As it turns out our "escapee" was actually a beneficiary of an early release policy that has been in place for several years in Orange County.

Our sheriff finds himself in one of the most bizarre positions imaginable for a public official. California law requires him to execute the lawfully imposed orders of our state courts.

But the law of the United States, as determined by the federal District Court, forbids him from doing so unless he can comply with certain minimum standards--standards which he is prevented from meeting because the voters and their elected representatives have not provided adequate custodial facilities.

Of course, the voters and politicians are all in favor of more jails--so long as they are not going to be built in their neighborhood/city/district. And while Sheriff Brad Gates wrestles with this classic dilemma, the real danger goes practically unnoticed. More than 31,000 prisoners getting "early release" (a euphemism for "let 'em go 'cause we need the beds") in the year 1992 to comply with a federal District Court order is not nearly so threatening to the integrity of the criminal justice system as what is happening at the other end of the pipe.

If your bucket is full, it won't hold any more water, and the same holds true for jails. With no room to house them, there are literally thousands of people who are not being arrested who have earned that right. Warrants for the arrest of those charged with minor offenses such as failure to appear, failure to pay a fine, and petty theft are being largely ignored throughout our state.

Ten years ago a person arrested for petty theft would typically be placed in custody pending arraignment or posting of bail.

Today that same person is given a citation and required to sign a promise to appear. And when they fail to appear and a warrant is issued for their arrest, that warrant will not be aggressively processed, because if the subject is found and arrested he or she will simply be released again (after signing a promise to appear, of course) because there is no room in the jail.

Are you getting the message? It shouldn't surprise us that, as a result of this absurd situation, increasing numbers of people are ignoring their obligations, thumbing their noses at the courts, and turning our community into a hockey game with no penalty box.

There are two possible solutions. First, those people in our society who engage in the criminal conduct that creates the need for more jails can, in an effort to become better citizens, simply stop committing crimes.

This possibility should be considered right up there with pigs flying and national deficit-reduction as viable options.

The second alternative is for the citizens of this county to throw a few sticks of dynamite into the political logjam that has frustrated all attempts to provide the additional jail facilities that are so badly needed.

Each county supervisor sees the need for another county jail, as long as it's in another district. I don't see any county supervisor, past, present or future who will say: "Put the jail in my district."

The cities want to see another jail but not in their city. And residents think a new jail is needed, but not in their neighborhood.

A jail is not a revenue producer.

If it was, it might be wanted.

What the county supervisors need to do is create a neutral fact-finding commission that would locate potential sites for a new jail. But in making appointments to that commission, the county board must also make a moral commitment that it will support the site recommendation from the neutral commission.

We have a problem that is reaching crisis proportions and, if not addressed, will soon become a national emergency.

You can see it on the streets and in the courthouses everywhere in our county and our country.

It's the creeping spread of disrespect, disregard and disavowal of the ideals and institutions that have made this country great.

We'll be sorry indeed if we let that happen just because we don't want to see a jail built in our community.

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