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Jammed to 212% Above Official Capacity : County’s Jails Again the Nation’s Most Crowded

Times Staff Writer

For the second consecutive year, San Diego County’s jails are the most heavily overcrowded of the nation’s largest detention facilities, a national survey released Monday showed.

The study, which examined 27 jail systems throughout the country with 1,000 or more inmates, found that San Diego County’s jails operated at 212% of capacity during 1988, with an average daily prisoner population of 3,702 squeezed into facilities with an official capacity of 1,743.

The next highest level of overcrowding was in Los Angeles County’s jails, which averaged 162% of their official capacity, followed by jails in Phoenix and Memphis, both of which averaged 149%, according to the report. Seven other counties reported jail populations that totaled more than 125% of capacity, while two counties--Essex County, N.J., and Nassau County, N.Y.--did not submit data to be included in the survey, conducted annually by the Maricopa County, Ariz., (Phoenix) Sheriff’s Department.

Reiterating their oft-stated warnings over what the Board of Supervisors has officially declared to be a jail overcrowding crisis, county officials cited the report as vivid documentation of the magnitude of the problem.

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“This report reinforces the urgent need we face for new jails in San Diego County,” Supervisor Susan Golding said.

In fact, since January, the overcrowding problem has worsened, with the average inmate capacity in San Diego’s jails rising to about 240%, according to county figures.

With Proposition A, a half-cent sales tax for new jails and courts that was narrowly approved last year by San Diego County voters, having been struck down as unconstitutional by a Riverside County Superior Court judge, county administrators glumly concede that their only realistic hope of alleviating the jail overcrowding lies in overturning that March decision.

Over its 10-year life, Proposition A is projected to raise about $1.6 billion for new jails and courtrooms. Because of ongoing serious budget constraints--and the fact that 97% of the county’s $1.45-billion annual budget is allocated to mandated state and federal programs--even draconian cuts in a wide range of county services would generate only a small percentage of the amount available under Proposition A.

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“Without the funds from Proposition A to build new jails and courts, the safety and welfare of this entire county is jeopardized,” Golding said.

Similarly, Supervisor George Bailey, who chairs the Criminal Justice Council, a 17-member countywide group that studies regional needs, used the study’s findings to once again repeat his lament that the victory that county officials won at the polls in June, 1988, has been transformed into defeat, at least temporarily, in the courts.

“The present overcrowding constitutes a real threat to both inmates and (jail) staff,” Bailey said. “The citizens of this county have responded to our board’s solution by agreeing to tax themselves to build additional jails, only to have that popular vote overturned by the court.”

Long Appeal Process

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In a March 23 decision that he reaffirmed last month, Judge Gordon Burkhart declared the half-cent sales tax illegal on the grounds that its 50.6% countywide approval at the polls fell short of the two-thirds margin mandated by Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 property tax-cutting initiative approved by statewide voters in 1978.

Appeals of Burkhart’s decision, expected to ultimately reach the state Supreme Court, could last as long as two years, according to lawyers on both sides of the case.

Although Monday’s survey showed that San Diego’s jails were the most overcrowded in terms of percentage of capacity, other larger counties had greater numbers of “excess” prisoners than those found in local detention facilities last year.

For example, while San Diego’s 212% capacity resulted in roughly 2,000 more prisoners than jail beds daily, Los Angeles’ lower 162% rate forced officials there to handle nearly 8,400 inmates above their jails’ 13,464-prisoner capacity.

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San Diego officials, however, have consistently argued that the percentage figures are a more significant indicator of jail crowding than numerical totals, noting that the former directly measure a detention system’s actual usage against its intended capacity.


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