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O.C. sheriff seeks to expand jail

December 02, 2006|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona has pushed forward with plans for an Irvine jail expansion that would ultimately more than triple the number of inmates at the facility, a project that has drawn fierce opposition from neighboring cities, despite the need to alleviate overcrowding.

It remains unclear how the $250-million project would be funded since the county has not budgeted funds for construction. Bill Campbell, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said there was talk in Sacramento of a prison construction bond being placed on the 2008 ballot, but if that does not happen the county could issue its own bonds or lease the facility from the builder, among other options.

In an announcement this week, Carona said the department was beginning the process of hiring an architect. The hiring and initial plans are expected to take a year, and the county has budgeted $2.3 million for the effort.

Should the construction funding come through, the first phase of development is expected to be completed in five to seven years. Much of the initial work would focus on replacing the mobile wooden dormitories and tents which, when erected in the 1980s, were intended to be temporary.

The move follows repeated criticism from the grand jury that the Orange County jail system has a shortage of beds. Until last year, the county was under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding. The county housed an average of 1,600 more inmates per day than its jail system was designed to hold, according to a June grand jury report that faulted county officials for poor planning.

The county has been trying to expand the James A. Musick Branch Jail for at least a decade. But the proposal has been a contentious one, particularly in Lake Forest, where homes sit 700 feet from the site, and in Irvine. The jail would abut the Great Park, where Irvine plans to transform the former El Toro air base into a 1,350-acre recreational haven with a golf course, a botanical garden, a lake, hot-air balloons and a museum.

The two cities once sued the county to stop jail expansion plans. The original proposal called for 7,500 beds at the facility, housing minimum-, medium- and maximum-security prisoners. Under a compromise with Lake Forest, the county reduced the proposal to 4,400 beds, with no maximum-security prisoners, the proposal Carona is moving forward with.

The jail currently has 1,256 beds.

Irvine rejected the compromise and an appeals court upheld the county plan. The city subsequently flirted with the idea of annexing the land around Musick into the Great Park to prevent further expansion but backed off.

On Friday, Irvine Mayor Beth Krom said that the Sheriff's Department had not approached Irvine officials to discuss the renewed effort and that she was concerned about the proposal.

"We haven't even had the courtesy of a communication from the Sheriff's Department about this plan," she said.

The Sheriff's Department said no officials were available Friday to discuss the proposal further.

christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

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