Putting Things Right at the Jail

The court-ordered deadline for relieving overcrowding at the Orange County Jail and providing each prisoner with a bed each night has come and gone, and the county is still unable to comply.

Whether U.S. District Judge William P. Gray extends the deadline or grants the county request to suspend further fines, or at least let any fines be used to improve jail conditions, remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: The county must still find ways to reduce the overcrowding in the County Jail.

The best solution is to build a new jail. The county intends to do that. But new lockup facilities appear to be still at least a couple of years away. So other alternatives must be used beyond those already employed to ease the current overcrowding.

Some of those alternative approaches are the diversion and prisoner-release programs that other counties have used. For example, hundreds of prisoners booked on alcohol-abuse charges are better treated for their medical problem at a detoxification center than as criminals locked up in jail.

And some nonviolent prisoners, as Chief Probation Officer Michael Schumacher has suggested, can be released early. We're not talking about releasing hardened criminals with long and violent records. But releasing on parole and probation people convicted of minor crimes who pose no real threat to the community must not be misconstrued as being soft on crime or coddling criminals.

Indeed, U.S. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger has urged a greater reliance on probation to relieve prison overcrowding. The concept applies equally well to the Orange County Jail, where serious overcrowding increases the risks of violence, forces hundreds of inmates to sleep on mats on the jail floor and is costing the county thousands of dollars in fines each day because, while ignoring alternatives like early release, it has failed to comply with the court order to improve jail conditions.

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