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Judge forbids early jail releases

O.C. sheriff's officials cite overcrowding, but D.A. says there's room.

May 23, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

In the latest case to pit the Orange County sheriff and district attorney against each other, a judge Thursday refused to allow the sheriff to start releasing inmates early to ease jail overcrowding.

O.C. Superior Court Judge Thomas Borris did not explain his decision. The district attorney's office had opposed the plan, saying it believed the Sheriff's Department had enough available beds.

Testifying at a hearing in Santa Ana, Sheriff's Capt. Roland Chacon said that the county's two largest jail facilities were filled beyond capacity and that the department might need to release some inmates early if many people were arrested this holiday weekend.

Chacon said the department was placing some inmates in disciplinary isolation cells -- ordinarily reserved for inmates involved in violence or other disobedience -- and in medical facilities because they had run out of room.

The Intake and Release Center in Santa Ana, for instance, had 475 male inmates in an area with capacity for 375, Chacon said. Theo Lacy Jail in Orange was housing 2,674 inmates in an area with capacity for 2,659, he said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Fitzpatrick noted that the Sheriff's Department had about 275 available beds at its James Musick jail facility, which is designed for low-security inmates.

"They haven't come in and shown a necessity at this time. The bunk space is available," Fitzpatrick said. "We're talking about letting people who have been convicted of a crime out before they've served their time, so they're getting a freebie. They're getting a get-out-of-jail-free card."

Chacon said the department was housing some inmates alone in cells designed for two because of security concerns. All inmates low-risk enough to be housed at Musick had been sent there, he said.

The department had asked Borris' permission to release inmates a few days early if necessary, but had no immediate plans to do so.

"The sheriff had no desire to let inmates out before they've done their time. That said, the sheriff has an obligation to keep the jails safe," said Deputy County Counsel Laura Knapp. "The sheriff only wants to use accelerated release in the most dire of circumstances. It's our position those circumstances are here."

Thursday's courtroom debate marked the latest in a string of incidents that have pitted the district attorney and sheriff -- traditional allies -- against each other.

The district attorney impaneled a special grand jury to investigate the killing of an inmate at Theo Lacy Jail in 2006 and released a scathing report in April about the department's performance at that facility. The two sides argued in court about whether evidence and transcripts from that case should be made public. They have also quarreled about the district attorney's plans to open a separate DNA testing laboratory.

Knapp argued that the district attorney had no legal standing to oppose the sheriff's request, but Borris disagreed and permitted Fitzpatrick to cross-examine Chacon and to argue against the plan.

After the hearing, Knapp said only that the Sheriff's Department would "consider its options."

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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