The most open schism in years between the Orange County Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Brad Gates was developing Wednesday in the wake of the extraordinary early release of 42 Orange County Jail inmates Tuesday night.
The supervisors called for an investigation into conflicting reports about jail overcrowding and staffing after the surprise release of the sentenced inmates--most of whom were serving time for misdemeanor burglary or drug-related crimes.
Supervisors also questioned Gates and top county officials about why there was an overcrowding crisis at a time when more than 200 new jail beds are now sitting empty.
Gates claims he does not have enough deputies to guard inmates who could use those beds. But supervisors also questioned that claim, saying they had been told there are more than 70 vacancies in the Sheriff’s Department’s sworn ranks.
And they said they would investigate whether County Administrative Officer Larry Parrish had accurately portrayed the sheriff’s staffing situation to them and whether he understood the urgency of the issue, which forced the early release of the inmates.
Privately, some county officials wondered whether a federal civil suit against Gates in Los Angeles had contributed to his problems in Orange County. Gates on Wednesday lost the suit, which charged that he orchestrated a criminal investigation of a political foe.
“It’s certainly possible the sheriff was distracted by the events in Los Angeles,” one county source said. “But it turned into a highly unfortunate situation in terms of the sheriff and the board.”
Overall, the population of the county jail system this week was almost 4,400 even though the state Board of Corrections has rated the system’s capacity at about 3,200. The state’s ratings, however, are only guidelines for local officials.
The 216 beds that are still empty are in the county’s newest facility in Santa Ana, the Intake/Release Center. Currently, there is only one prisoner in each of the cells in the new jail even though there are two bunks.
On Jan. 25, the state Board of Corrections granted the county permission to add another inmate to each of the 216 cells. As a condition, however, the board said the sheriff would have to add another 14 deputies.
The supervisors said they have not seen a request from the Sheriff’s Department for the additional staff and so they believed that the additional positions could be filled by the existing vacancies in the department.
Supervisors said if that was not the case they should have been told.
Parrish said, however, that “there were no warning shots in this thing.” He also described it as “some kind of communication problem that I think will be resolved quickly.”
“The board’s under the impression that the sheriff and I are not talking,” he said. "(And) there are people (in the Sheriff’s Department) who thought . . . my staff or I, myself, were roadblocks in this situation . . . and that’s not a fair assessment.
“I’m sort of puzzled by the whole thing,” he said.
Supervisors said the events had left them confused.
“I was reassured two or three or four times that everything was in place for (the availability of new jail beds) to happen,” said board Chairman Thomas F. Riley. “I guess 70 positions were there and it was a matter of the sheriff getting them filled.”
Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez added: “I would say I’m surprised because the board has . . . gone to great lengths to establish the availability of those extra beds. And for this situation to develop in a short period of time, it comes as a surprise to me.”
Supervisor Don R. Roth said: “There is a discrepancy between the statements of the CAO and the opinion of the sheriff. I’m asking the CAO to look into it and provide the answers.”
Assistant Sheriff Jerry Krans said Wednesday that the 70 positions are actually 69 and that they include 31 deputies who are in the training academy. He said there are more new hires who are awaiting training.
The 69 positions “are already spoken for,” Krans said. He also said the county will need 79, an additional 10, before the sheriff can double-bunk the new jail.
Doug Woodyard, an analyst for the County Administrative Office, said he received a request for the 10 additional deputies last week along with 64 other positions the sheriff has requested to staff an expanded branch jail in Orange that is expected to open late this year.
Tuesday’s releases came as the Sheriff’s Department said the overcrowding at its main jail in Santa Ana was so severe that it sought a judge’s order to provide immediate relief.
Superior Court Judge Phillip E. Cox granted permission for the department to release prisoners up to 10 days before they had served their complete sentences. Previously, to relieve overcrowding, the Sheriff’s Department had been releasing prisoners up to 5 days early, and in some cases, 8 days.
In addition, the Sheriff’s Department said that arrestees being held on less than $10,000 bail would be eligible for release whenever the jail was severely overcrowded. That threshold was increased from $5,000 bail, which the department had been using as a guideline.
Krans said the department had to release 42 inmates Tuesday night under the new criteria so that it could avoid violating a federal judge’s order that limits the jail population on the top two floors of the Santa Ana jail to 1,293.
Krans said the inmates released were mostly serving misdemeanor sentences for burglary or drug-related crimes. On Wednesday, he said the overcrowding crisis had subsided and the department had returned to its previous routine. He said, however, that it could erupt again in a matter of hours.