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Treatment for Public Drunks

The Orange County Board of Supervisors is thinking about priorities as it wrestles with its proposed $1.26-billion budget. The creation of sobering-up stations to treat public drunks ought to be at the top of the list.

The problem isn’t new. It has been around for too many years. But the board--despite urgings from past grand juries, the sheriff, health officials and community leaders--has chosen to ignore it.

Instead, the board has continued to treat public drunkenness as a crime rather than as an illness, and drunks have gone off to jail--an insensitive and archaic procedure that not only prevents drunks from receiving the help that they need but costs taxpayers considerably more money than the operation of detoxification centers would.

The problem was exacerbated last month when Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates advised the county’s police agencies that they could no longer bring in drunks off the street because the overcrowded jail no longer had room for them. The jail booked about 7,000 public drunks last year. The result of the sheriff’s refusal to continue accepting drunks is that many of them are now left on the streets.

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The Orange County Grand Jury thinks that the drunks ought to be taken to sobering-up stations around the county. The only problem is that there are none. But there should be.

Orange County, according to the Grand Jury, is “in the 14th Century” in providing complete alcohol-recovery programs, compared to surrounding counties. The jury noted that the county spends “zero dollars out of (its) general fund” on alcohol-recovery programs. But it spent $55.34 a day to jail drunks, compared with $7.70 for treatment in San Diego County’s drunk center and $5.11 in Los Angeles County’s center.

Santa Ana, which booked more public drunks into the Orange County Jail than did any other city, is so upset over having no place to take public drunks that it is considering filing a lawsuit that would force the jail to accept the drunks. A better approach would be for the city to stop opposing the location of sobering-up stations in its community.

The Grand Jury is right. It is time that Orange County joined the 20th Century in the treatment of problem drinkers. The county board can start by creating sobering-up stations. And the community can help by accepting them.

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