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Jail Expansion Plan Fails; Sheriff Has Had His Fill

County: Supervisors say Carona compromise lacks support. Renewed legal fight over Irvine site is likely.


A compromise plan designed to ease jail overcrowding by enlarging the James A. Musick Branch Jail is dead, county supervisors said Tuesday, rekindling a legal battle to determine whether any expansion will occur at the Irvine site.

The plan's failure prompted its author, Sheriff Mike Carona, to voice grave concerns about the continuing political quagmire over what is considered one of the nation's most cramped jail systems.

"I'm just frustrated that we still don't have an answer," he said. "I understand they don't like the compromise . . . but then what? I'm at a critical mass out here. The frustration is with needing to get something done."

The sheriff's plan called for a maximum of 4,600 new low-security beds at Musick built over the next 15 years--far less than the 7,500 maximum-security beds sought by his predecessor, Brad Gates. But Carona's proposal won the support of Lake Forest and Irvine, which promised to drop their lawsuit against the county's expansion plans as part of the deal.

County supervisors spent the last six months reviewing the plan but have yet to officially act on it. Three supervisors said Tuesday that the compromise lacks the votes for approval and is no longer under consideration.

With the deal shoved aside, Lake Forest officials said they will aggressively push their legal fight aimed at halting expansion at Musick. An appeals court hearing is scheduled to review the matter next week.

The county has labored for more than two decades under a federal court order to reduce chronic jail overcrowding. Hundreds of thousands of inmates have been granted early releases over the last decade to make room for incoming offenders, and officials last year blamed the tight conditions for jailhouse riots and attacks on deputies.

County supervisors have repeatedly failed to find a politically acceptable site for a new jail and have long eyed Musick as the answer in helping the county break free of the federal court order.

The compromise package won the support of only two supervisors--Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson--both of whom represent areas abutting the jail. Board Chairman Chuck Smith said he and two others could not support the plan because of what they saw as several key weaknesses in the settlement's language.

The proposal contained too many conditions, Smith said, including an immediate freeze on new jail beds at Musick if the county can find another place to build a jail. And many of those conditions were "open to interpretation," he said, raising the specter of more legal battles later.

A subcommittee of law enforcement and city officials revised Carona's proposal to eliminate many of the conditions. But Smith said that Lake Forest and Irvine officials are uninterested in negotiating.

"It was either take it or leave it as far as they're concerned, so we left it," Smith said. "But we also left the door open."

Spitzer and Wilson said the Board of Supervisors is missing a rare opportunity by not taking the deal.

"It's abhorrent. . . . I just think it's a terrible gamble to play the litigation card," Spitzer said. "Now we're going to do what the board majority knows how to do best, and that's hire more lawyers."

Plans to expand Musick have repeatedly run into fierce opposition from residents in Irvine and Lake Forest, where the nearest homes are only 700 feet from the jail.

To allay fears, Carona's plan called for more patrols around the jail and regular reviews to determine whether the county had enough jail beds to close Musick and transfer inmates to an alternative site.

Despite the concessions, many residents continued to express concern over the settlement, which won only a 3-2 majority on the Irvine City Council in February.

Carona, who has made relieving the jail space crunch a priority for his first term, said he doesn't fault the supervisors for their decision and still hopes to work with them to find a solution.

Carona believes the county will need about 4,650 new jail beds by 2025. Currently, the Sheriff's Department is adding 500 beds at the Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange.

Now that the Musick proposal is dead, Carona said he will turn his attention to some of the most pressing problems that have festered at the facility.

In recent months, health problems at the mess hall prompted the county to shut part of it down. Temporary replacement quarters will cost roughly $900,000.

And more space is needed for vocational course classrooms. Some sessions are now held in broom closets because of a lack of space, Carona said.

"We haven't done anything because we've been waiting for the board to make a decision," the sheriff said. "Not making a decision has increased the timeline and caused some frustration."

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