The attorney who pressed the federal court fight against overcrowding at the Orange County Jail said Monday that the county should be forced to pay fines that could total thousands of dollars a day because it has not done all it could to solve the problem quickly.
Attorney Richard Herman also criticized one of the Board of Supervisors’ main decisions last week to stop overcrowding, the installation of triple bunks in the jail, saying it “institutionalizes inhumane and subhuman conditions.”
U.S. District Judge William P. Gray on March 18 found the supervisors and Sheriff Brad Gates in criminal contempt for not complying with Gray’s 1978 order to improve conditions at the jail.
Gray imposed a $50,000 fine, which has been used to pay for a special master to monitor conditions at the jail, and an additional fine of $10 a day for each inmate forced to sleep on foam rubber mats on the jail floor for more than one night.
But Gray stayed imposition of the $10 fine until May 17, giving the county time to improve conditions at the jail, which has a capacity of 1,191 and bunks for 1,530. Last week, on a day when the jail contained 1,866 inmates, county officials said they could not meet the deadline.
The chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Thomas F. Riley, acknowledged Monday that most county officials involved in drawing up the plan to ease overcrowding at the jail in Santa Ana expected that Gray would order imposition of the $10-a-day fine.
Riley said he was still optimistic that Gray might decide to continue to stay imposition of the fine because the county made a good-faith effort to meet the deadline. But he said he hoped that if the fine was imposed it could “be put in a special fund so it can help to pay” for the measures needed to improve conditions at the jail, “rather than have it go to a fine for the federal government.”
Last week the supervisors ordered that three-tier bunks be installed at the jail and that the James A. Musick honor farm near El Toro be expanded to handle more nonviolent prisoners.
The board also heeded other suggestions of a special county task force appointed to recommend measures to satisfy Gray’s order, including studying whether to set up a youthful offender program to put up to 96 youths up to age 21 at the Los Pinos Forestry Camp near Lake Elsinore, which now holds 96 youths aged 16 to 18.
Herman, however, said in an interview Monday that “the logical things to do” to cut the jail population would have been to free people awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges on their promise to show up in court, and to speed up arraignments of people held in jail.
‘Why Be Sympathetic?’
Herman handled the case for the American Civil Liberties Union. Speaking of Gates and other county officials he said had not taken actions they could have to cut the jail population, he asked, “Why should anyone be sympathetic toward them; how sympathetic can a judge be?”
Gates said last week that it could take six months to construct facilities at the Musick facility and complete other steps needed to reduce the jail to “capacity.”
And the sheriff said that Gray “probably may not be very happy with waiting six months to get somebody moved off the floor” of the jail and into a bunk at the jail or another detention facility.
But Assistant County Counsel Arthur C. Wahlstedt Jr. said that when Gray returns from presiding over a trial in Chicago in June the county might ask that he continue to delay imposing the fine. No date has been set for a hearing on the matter, but Herman said he hoped for one in the first half of June.