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Jail Crunch Made Worse by Local Sentences, Gates Says

Times County Bureau Chief

Citing a new jail study, Sheriff Brad Gates on Tuesday attributed overcrowding at the Orange County Jail partly on judges who have allowed more than 500 convicted felons to serve their sentences locally instead of in state prison.

“Some of the inmates could be sentenced to state prison if the judges wanted to do that, but obviously some of them have been giving out County Jail time instead, which in effect treats the felony as though it were a misdemeanor,” Gates said in an interview, adding:

“Perhaps they (the judges) ought to be sending more of them to state prison.”

Superior Court Presiding Judge Everett W. Dickey and Richard Beacom, the former presiding judge, were among several members of the bench who could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

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Jail Population Study

Gates’ remarks referred to a study of the Orange County Jail population completed by his staff and delivered to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The study, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, details the different categories of inmates who were present on a given day, March 22.

The inch-thick jail census report shows that 585 of the jail’s 2,193 inmates on March 22 were there after being ordered to serve sentences for felonies in the jail, with fewer than two dozen awaiting transfer to state prison to serve their sentences.

The largest group of sentenced felons numbered 183 and had been convicted of being under the influence of a controlled substance. The second biggest group consisted of 124 felons convicted on burglary charges.

The state Penal Code allows judges to treat some drug and burglary convictions, among other crimes, as either a felony or a misdemeanor after evaluating the evidence and the seriousness of the circumstances. Such cases are called “wobblers” because they can go either way.

Also, some prosecutors have been willing to go along with a misdemeanor sentence in some felony cases in order to encourage a guilty plea, although plea bargaining was recently prohibited by state law and Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks officially banned the practice in his office five years ago.

The jail census study was sought by a task force appointed by the Board of Supervisors, which is examining ways of reducing overcrowding at the jail in the wake of a federal court order banning it.

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U.S. District Judge William P. Gray on March 18 gave Gates 60 days to relieve the overcrowding or face a $10 daily fine for each inmate who must sleep on the floor for more than one night.

Gray fined Gates and the county $50,000, and found them in criminal contempt for failure to comply with his seven-year-old order that each inmate have a bunk.

Creating “sobering-up stations,” reviving the dormant county parole board and expanding work-release programs for inmates are among eight options being studied to ease the lack of bunks.

In a report made public last week, the task force said it is also considering some plans for reduced jail sentences and increased transfers to mental health facilities.

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Population Analyzed

The statistical report analyzing the jail’s inmate population for March 22 shows that there were 585 inmates there who had been sentenced on felony convictions, compared to 426 for misdemeanors. Those in custody but remaining unsentenced totaled 1,182 out of the inmate population of 2,193 on that date.

The figures also showed that more than 800 inmates are still in the pretrial stages of court proceedings and a vast majority of those prisoners are incarcerated because they can’t afford to pay cash bail or post the 10% necessary for release on bond.

“This may mean that members of a person’s family could not come up with the money, or maybe no bail bondsman would touch them in some cases,” Gates said.

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The figures also show that “a large number of inmates cannot be transferred to minimum security facilities because of the category (dangerous, pose an escape risk) they’re in or because some other jurisdiction has placed a hold on them because of a warrant or something, or there are serious medical or drug problems,” Gates added.

“The statistics show what we’ve been saying all along--that these are the reasons the jail is overcrowded, and that’s nothing really new. But it helps to show why it’s difficult to change the situation,” the sheriff added.


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