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Afraid of freeing felons, O.C. supervisors reject jail release plan

ScienceJanet NguyenSandra Hutchens

Citing concerns about prematurely releasing criminals into the community, the Orange County Board of Supervisors refused to allow law enforcement officials to expand the county's inmate electronic monitoring program to include felons.

"I understand they need to find an alternative to incarceration, and I appreciate the sheriff's efforts," Supervisor Janet Nguyen said Tuesday. "But I'm still uncomfortable allowing felons to be out on the street."

The move came as the county, like many jurisdictions across the state, grapples with a ballooning jail population and scant resources to house inmates.

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said her department has struggled to accommodate an influx of inmates from a variety of sources. California's prison realignment, the state's effort to relieve crowded conditions in prisons, has sent some offenders to county jails.

Hutchens said there are about 900 more inmates in Orange County's system as a result of the realignment. She added that while plans to greatly expand James A. Musick jail in Irvine are underway, those beds are not yet available.

In spite of all that, Hutchens said, Orange County has been able to avoid releasing inmates early, even as other jails have been forced to take that step.

"We're trying to work within the confines of the budget, and we're trying to prevent Orange County from being added to the list of counties that are being sued for overcrowding," she told the board. "It's a balance for us."

In September 2012, the board gave the go-ahead for programs that allow jail inmates incarcerated for misdemeanors to serve out some time at home, with supervised electronic monitoring.

This week, Hutchens said those home-monitoring programs have been successful, adding that inmates who are being monitored electronically are still technically in custody.

Assistant Sheriff Lee Trujillo told the board Tuesday that the only inmates who would have been eligible for electronic monitoring are "low-risk" felons — those who are nonviolent, with limited criminal records and just days remaining on their sentences.

Still, said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, "We know that electronic monitoring is not foolproof."

A motion to vote for the item died for lack of a second, though board Chairman Shawn Nelson and Supervisor John Moorlach said they would have supported the move.

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Jill.cowan@latimes.com

 

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