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Grand Jury's Report Calling for New Jails Is Labeled Unrealistic : Facilities: County administrative officer says the money isn't available to either build or operate proposed detention sites in Irvine and Santa Ana.

November 17, 1994|MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Orange County officials said Wednesday that a grand jury report recommending construction of jails in Irvine and Santa Ana is unrealistic because the county has no way to pay for the proposed facilities.

"We don't have the money to build or operate a new jail," County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider said. "There's no sense getting a lot of people upset in Santa Ana and Irvine until we have the funding in place. Why create all this agitation?"

In a five-page report released this week, the grand jury recommended that the county build a 3,000-bed, maximum- to medium-security jail next to the sheriff's headquarters at Flower Street and Santa Ana Boulevard in Santa Ana. The county also should build another 3,000-bed, maximum- to medium-security facility on 100 acres next to the James A. Musick Branch Jail in Irvine, the grand jury report stated.

The report also suggested that the Board of Supervisors consider imposing a tax on county residents or sell bonds specifically earmarked for new jail construction.

"The bottom line is the county has to do something," said Royal Lord, a grand jury member. "You can keep releasing crooks onto the streets or put them in jail. Either way the county is still going to pay."

Although county officials agree there is an overcrowding crisis in the jails, they say the county does not have the money to build new facilities and residents have been unwilling to pay for new jails.

"The amount of money we're talking about is staggering," Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez said.

Vasquez said he thought the grand jury report failed to thoroughly analyze how much it costs to build and operate a jail. He pointed out that an attempt to get voter approval of a tax for jail construction failed by a large margin three years ago.

Furthermore, Vasquez said, there are various land-use and environmental issues that would have to be addressed before either of the two proposed sites could be approved.

Lord said the panel reached its findings after months of research, which included interviewing federal and county law enforcement authorities, touring other jails and possible jail sites and examining the sheriff's reports on jail overcrowding.

Board Chairman Thomas F. Riley, whose district includes the Irvine site, said any discussion on where to build a jail always sparks tremendous concern among county residents.

"The 'not in my back yard' syndrome has prevailed here," Riley said. "But we have to come up with a place. We can't keep saying no."

Riley added that he hoped the grand jury would add "some credibility" to the overcrowding crisis and possibly spur the board into action before the end of the year, when he and Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder retire.

Riley said he thought the current board could take some political pressure off the two new supervisors, state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) and Huntington Beach Councilman Jim Silva, who will be sworn on to the board in January, by addressing the jail issue before the end of the year.

"I think that would be in the best interest of incoming supervisors," Riley said. "I'm prepared to vote."

Riley, however, declined to state his position on the proposed sites and said he doubted that the board would be able to act on the issue at its meeting Tuesday, as recommended in the grand jury report.

Jail overcrowding has plagued the county for more than 15 years, getting increasingly worse each year. County officials say the situation has become even more critical this year with the state's "three strikes" law.

Sheriff Brad Gates told county officials in August that the problem has become so severe that in the past two years he has been forced to release nearly 55,000 inmates from jail early.

Despite the crisis, little has been done at the county level, with the exception of a proposed expansion of the Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange. That project, which would increase the number of jail beds at the facility from 1,326 to 4,480, is on hold, pending negotiations between the county and the city to resolve the city's opposition to expansion.

Supervisor William G. Steiner said the grand jury's report was "very timely" because it assures officials with the city of Orange that they are not the only ones who should be burdened with new jail bed construction.

"Orange has to be convinced that it is not the only game in town," Steiner said. "If some of these other communities could pick up some of the burden, Orange is willing to do its part."

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