In a stunning decision that could set back plans to ease overcrowding in the Orange County Jail, a Superior Court judge Wednesday halted work on a project that would more than double the size of the Theo Lacy Branch Jail, ruling that a lawsuit over its environmental impact must first be resolved.
Judge William F. McDonald acknowledged his concern about the severe inmate overcrowding but nevertheless barred the county from beginning excavation and construction work at the 622-bed facility in Orange until the suit challenging the expansion is tried, dropped or settled.
The lawsuit was filed in February by the City of Orange and the City shopping center and office complex across the street from the site. It contends that a state-required environmental report on the project is flawed because it does not adequately analyze the negative impact of the project on the surrounding area. It also contends that the environmental review process was inadequate because no separate report was done by the Sheriff's Department, the sole and independent operator of the County Jail facilities.
McDonald, while agreeing that the latter argument has merit, said the county must do the review according to the law. His comments seemed to indicate that he would be on the side of the plaintiffs at trial, at least on that issue.
"I was the the first judge, certainly one of the first, to pay a surprise visit to the jail and see the overcrowding myself," McDonald told lawyers for the two sides at a court hearing Wednesday morning in Santa Ana. "I'm as frustrated and annoyed as anybody that the county hasn't been able to do anything about it, but it is important (the environmental review) be done right."
Lawyers for the county tried to persuade McDonald to require the other side to post a bond to cover losses that they said would amount to $5,200 a day because of the delay. But the judge refused.
He allowed the county to only continue installation of five temporary trailers that have been put on the site to replace a chapel and a library that were demolished to make way for the expansion and also to install a security fence around the trailers and remove asbestos from the existing facility.
The Theo Lacy expansion is the county's only firm, short-term project to ease overcrowding at the County Jail, which has been so congested in recent years that thousands of people who would otherwise have been held have been issued citations and released. In some cases, inmates have had time lopped off their sentences so their beds could be turned over to more serious offenders.
Last year alone, 42,675 inmates were cited and released or released early. This year, that figure is expected to climb to 50,000. The Sheriff's Department is under court order to limit the inmate population at the main jail in Santa Ana.
Last month, the county got a reprieve when the Board of Supervisors approved double-bunking--putting two inmates in each cell instead of just one--in 216 cells at the Jail Intake/Release Center in Santa Ana. At that time, a jail official termed the move a mere "Band-Aid approach" to the problem.
County officials had hoped to open the first phase of an enlarged Theo Lacy jail by the end of the year. McDonald's ruling lessens the chance of that happening.
County lawyers are pushing for a June 6 trial date in the City of Orange case so it can be resolved as soon as possible. But lawyers for the plaintiffs say they cannot be prepared that soon. McDonald said he wants to hear the case sometime within the next 90 days. If the county loses in court, it would have to prepare a new environmental review, a process that could take months, or choose another course of action such as selecting another jail site or expanding another existing facility.
Sheriff Brad Gates was out of town Wednesday and could not be reached for comment, a spokesman said.
Other county officials said McDonald's ruling could prompt an out-of-court settlement of the suit.
"I would be very disappointed if (the county's lawyers) didn't recommend action that would lead to a settlement," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas F. Riley. Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, who met with Orange Mayor Don E. Smith Wednesday morning to discuss the issue, said he and Smith were "positive and mutually optimistic" that a settlement could be reached.
Smith, contacted later, agreed that a resolution could occur within 30 days.
Of McDonald's ruling, he said:
"We're really encouraged and feel it's a fair decision. I'm really glad we have a system that gives us our day in court."
Smith said that Orange officials recognize that the jail overcrowding issue is a major one, but he added that Orange's concerns about the expansion project are also major.
"We're concerned about the numbers and classifications of inmates, that no maximum security inmates be housed there, (and) the impact on traffic circulation," he said.
The City of Orange's case is the third lawsuit that city officials have filed against the county over the jail. The first two were withdrawn when the county modified its environmental report. The latest lawsuit raises essentially the same objections as the other two, and says the environmental report modification are still unsatisfactory.
McDonald's ruling Wednesday clearly angered lawyers for the county, who brushed aside reporters as they left the courtroom. Calls to the county counsel's office were referred to Laurence Watson, described as an assistant to County Counsel Adrian Kuyper, but Watson did not return the calls.
County lawyers had sought at the hearing Wednesday to sway the judge with the argument that if the expansion work was stopped at this stage, with inmates using trailers for some activities, security at Theo Lacy would be lessened and some inmates might have to be moved to other facilities.
Susan Trager, attorney for Orange, countered that the county had dug itself into that problem by going ahead with the demolition of the chapel and the library. She said that she was not aware of the demolitions until the hearing.
Later, outside the courtroom, she charged that county officials had deliberately created a crisis hoping to gain sympathy from the judge.
"We're sorry they felt it necessary to sneak out their bulldozers in the middle of the night," Trager said.
The county's $45-million plan to expand Theo Lacy is 2 years old. The plan calls for adding three buildings to the complex, creating space for a total of 1,326 inmates in the old and new buildings. The project was scheduled to be completed in 1991.
The Board of Supervisors has agreed not to put maximum security inmates at the jail and to put a cap on the inmate population. But that stipulation is not binding on Gates, an elected official.
The county's environmental report says the expansion would cause no adverse impact on commercial areas or public safety and that there might even possibly be a benefit.
Some merchants at the City shopping center said they thought the same thing.
"It would make more room for (inmates) and would be a benefit to the city," said Elena Freeman, a manager at the Limited women's clothing store. "I don't see what it has to do with the merchants at all."