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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Misstep on Jail Expansion

October 01, 2000

In the county's two-decade search for critically needed additional jail beds, it's understandable that finding a new jail site that the community will support and the budget can afford is no easy task. What is difficult to fathom is how the county board majority can turn its back on the only short-range solution in sight, in the absence of a long-term one. But that's what happened earlier this month when three supervisors rejected a compromise worked out between Sheriff Mike Carona and the cities of Irvine and Lake Forest and endorsed by some of the county's top law enforcement officials, for expanding the James A. Musick Branch Jail in Irvine.

The plan didn't give the sheriff or the cities everything they wanted, but it was a livable approach. It calls for a maximum of 4,600 low-security jail beds, which will add about 3,300 beds, in phases over the next 15 years instead of the 7,500 maximum-security beds originally planned. In return, the cities promised to drop their lawsuit against the county's jail expansion plans. Fair enough, it seems.

Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson, who represent residents living closest to the jail, supported the compromise. But the board majority overrode them, saying there were key weaknesses in some of the settlement language and too many conditions, many of which they thought were "open to interpretation."

So the board is back facing the legal battle by the cities against expansion at Musick. But the door is not completely closed to compromise. The Irvine City Council last Tuesday voted not to rescind the agreement with the county. The supervisors have a fresh opportunity to commit themselves to returning to the table to find some common ground.

Another factor that should prompt the supervisors to go back to the bargaining table is the pending court decision on Measure F that would severely limit the county from building more jail beds. Measure F, overwhelmingly passed by voters last March, would require approval by two-thirds of the voters before the county could build or expand airports, large jails near homes and hazardous waste landfills. A court ruling on Measure F's legality is pending before a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge.

Still in effect is a federal court order from 1978 requiring the sheriff to ease the shortage of jail beds. The sheriff has a deadline of next year to satisfy that order. In the last 10 years, hundreds of thousands of inmates have been released early to make room for incoming prisoners and to stay within the federal court order in what Carona says is the most overcrowded jail system in America.

Easing that overcrowding has been a top priority of Carona's first term as sheriff. The decreasing crime rate has enabled the sheriff to lower the expected jail population. But that could change. If the arrest rate goes up, the number of available beds goes down, so the need for finding more beds is as vital as ever.

Aside from his negotiations on the Musick jail expansion and adding beds at the Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange, Carona last month launched a pilot rehabilitation program to treat prisoners with drug and alcohol addiction in an effort to control the causes of their crimes and cut down on the revolving door of arrest, lockup, release and rearrest. That will help ease overcrowding. So will work furlough programs, drug courts and monitored home detention for nonviolent prisoners.

Those are desirable approaches that should be supported. But they won't free up the number of beds that are needed.

Failure to find those beds only courts the jail disturbances and early release of prisoners of past years.

Several hundred thousand jail inmates have been released early in the last decade. Of those, more than 4,000 were rearrested for committing crimes when they otherwise would still have been in jail.

The county has no new, affordable, politically possible jail site in development. So it's hard to understand why the supervisors aren't more aggressive in working out any plan that immediately would add more jail beds.

With their options so woefully limited, it seems that in the short run the quicker and less costly approach would be to add to existing jails in ways that are compatible with the needs of surrounding communities.

In turning its back on the compromise at the Musick jail, the county board hasn't offered any alternative to meeting its legal responsibility to improve jail conditions.

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