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More O.C. jail guards urged

Consultants suggest 43% staffing increase to keep inmates safe.

November 15, 2008|Mike Anton | Anton is a Times staff writer.

A consulting firm hired by Orange County supervisors to study the county's troubled jail system says more than 450 new guards are needed to ensure the "safety and security" of inmates.

The recommendation by Crout & Sida Criminal Justice Consultants calls for boosting Sheriff's Department staff at the county's five jail facilities from 1,067 to 1,521 -- a whopping 43%.

The report, released Friday, comes as the county is considering an across-the-board 7% cut in spending due to revenue shortfalls brought on by the economic downturn and the state budget crisis. County Executive Officer Thomas Mauk has asked Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to trim more than $5 million from the department's budget. Crout & Sida was paid $250,000 for the study.

Hutchens declined to comment Friday, saying she's reserving her statements for the Board of Supervisors at their meeting Tuesday.

Hutchens sought the independent analysis of the county's jails after being named sheriff earlier this year. Under former Sheriff Michael S. Carona, who resigned amid scandal and is currently on trial on federal corruption charges, the county's overcrowded jail system came under fire for poor management and rampant inmate violence.

The beating death of a detainee by other inmates at Theo Lacy jail in 2006 led to a grand jury investigation that found guards had sanctioned inmate violence.

Crout & Sida spent four months evaluating the county's jails. Under Hutchens, the firm found, the "system is generally in good shape and effectively managed" and a "relatively safe place when compared to some other jurisdictions."

"We found staff to be relieved to have some stability in the leadership of the department," the report said. "Many expressed that they are looking forward to moving the department out of the glaring light of public scrutiny and regain a positive public image."

But the firm warned that continued overcrowding and a growing number of felony inmates and mentally ill offenders posed a serious danger.

"Adding custody staff in the jails is the most immediate, essential and expeditious step that can be taken to reduce the level of violence," the report concluded. "We urge that increasing staffing be acted upon swiftly."

Given budget shortfalls, that doesn't seem likely to happen, two supervisors said.

Supervisors Chris Norby and Bill Campbell said one option could be hiring lower-paid correctional officers instead of full-time sheriff's deputies, as is done in San Diego and Riverside counties.

"Our budget is determined by the state of California," Norby said. "California is in a severe deficit situation. We'll do what we can with what we have."


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