Expanding James Musick Jail

The first of what could be several significant decisions this month on crucially needed county jail facilities may come Wednesday when the county Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider the expansion of the James A. Musick branch jail in El Toro.

The issue, naturally, is not without some controversy. Residents in the area are understandably disturbed about plans to expand the minimum-security lockup. And county officials have too few acceptable options for finding the jail beds they must have for the county's immediate and long-term needs.

Unfortunately, there is more controversy than there should be, and neither the Board of Supervisors nor nearby residents can be considered innocent victims of the situation.

The scenario at Musick is much like the situation around the commercial and military airports in Orange County. The Musick facility has been located in the El Toro area near Trabuco Canyon Road for decades. In the early '60s, when it was first opened, the area was remote. The board failed to keep it that way, foolishly approving one housing development after another that allowed neighborhoods to grow up around the jail. Some homes are now only about 1,000 feet from the gate.

Although county supervisors made a major mistake in not using their zoning powers to protect Musick from urban encroachment, people moving into the El Toro area knew that the honor farm was there. And considering the county's continued growth, they should have surmised that expanding the jail one day was not only possible but most probable.

Which brings the board to its current dilemma and Wednesday's decision. The county is under a federal court order to resolve jail overcrowding. The Musick branch was built to house 713 people. It now holds more than 1,000 and expansion plans call for an ultimate capacity of 1,535. That's needed so there will be room at the high-security main jail in downtown Santa Ana for the more dangerous prisoners charged with felonies and violent crimes.

The county Planning Commission has approved the Musick expansion. The Board of Supervisors should, too. There is a critical and immediate need for jail beds and there is room for them at Musick. The most logical and economically reasonable decision is to put them there.

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