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Orange County

Jail Capacity Should Double, Report Says

Grand jury also calls for an independent study. But sheriff's officials say they monitor crowding.

May 13, 2003|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Orange County's jail system handled more than twice the average number of inmates it was rated for in 2002, despite freeing 8,500 prisoners through early release programs and other measures aimed at keeping populations at acceptable levels, according to a grand jury report released Monday.

In its 11-page report, the Orange County Grand Jury found that capacity will have to be nearly doubled, from the current 4,133 beds to 8,050 beds by the year 2010, to meet state standards -- a goal the panel acknowledged would be difficult to reach because of budget constraints and other issues.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department, which oversees the county's jails, agreed that overcrowding is an issue. But officials said the grand jury was misleading the public by reporting that 8,500 inmates had been released early. They said the inmates were released only three days before their sentences ended, under established state guidelines for mitigating overcrowding.

"We agree with most of the report that we're overcrowded and need to concentrate on more beds for the future," said Assistant Sheriff Rocky Hewitt, chief of jail operations. "But right now we're holding the line on having to release people early on their sentences. As long as we can continue to increase the amount of beds, we'll be able to stay ahead of the curve."

Increasing the bed count has long been a struggle in Orange County, which is still under a 1978 federal court order to ease overcrowding. For two decades, efforts to increase capacity have failed for a variety of reasons, including funding shortages, ideological and political debates, and strong opposition in regions where expansions or new facilities have been planned.

The grand jury -- which visited five jails, interviewed staff and reviewed state audits and other reports -- found that the system operated at an average of 121% above rated capacity last year, with overcrowding continuing despite about 700 early releases each month.

Although two new housing units are being built at the Theo Lacy facility, which will bring countywide capacity to 5,093 beds by 2005, staffing for those additional beds has not received budget approval, and no other additional beds are planned, the panel found.

The grand jury also noted that the Sheriff's Department has not conducted an in-depth study of its system since 1998, and recommended that it do so immediately.

Hewitt said the Sheriff's Department consults constantly with department experts and questioned paying for independent studies to tell the department what it already knows.

"The sheriff is hesitant to spend $250,000 of taxpayer money if he doesn't feel there's a need for an assessment right now," Hewitt said. "We know we're overcrowded."

The department has 60 days to respond the grand jury report.

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