Jail Crowding Solution Is Long Overdue : Massive Amount of Money Needed to End a Maddening Shell Game

In 1977, when San Diego County Jail inmate Henry Hudler and the American Civil Liberties Union filed their path-breaking lawsuit, the population in what was then the county's only detention facility had reached 1,500. Superior Court Judge James Focht declared that the level of overcrowding was unconstitutional three years later, ordering the jail census capped at 750.

Six new jails and another lawsuit later, the so-called "adjusted total" population on Thursday in the aging facility was 913.

The ACLU agreed in 1988 to a temporary cap of 1,250 at the downtown jail while the Vista Jail was emptied for renovation. Earlier this month, with Vista fully operational, Superior Court Judge James Malkus ordered jail officials to bring the population down to 1,000.

On Monday, the ACLU will again ask Malkus to order the Central Jail population reduced to 750. We agree that it is time to set a reasonable timetable for enforcing Focht's order.

Even after a major effort during the past two weeks to reduce population, the jail is 46% over its state-rated capacity. A look at the jail reveals more: row upon row of triple-bunked prisoners jammed into day areas, sleeping a few feet apart in the heat.

Jail officials admit that they play a maddening shell game to keep the bulging jails functioning while they stay below court-ordered census caps on all but one jail in the system.

They argue that their agreement to reduce the Central Jail population to 750 by today assumed that the new East Mesa Jail would be open by Jan. 1. That facility is still unfinished. Even if the jail were completed, the county says, it has no money to staff and operate it, a problem that delayed Vista's opening as well. Without East Mesa's beds, reducing the Central Jail population is impossible, jailers claim.

In the past 18 months, the Vista expansion and the construction of a men's jail at Las Colinas have added more than 1,100 jail beds. The central jail is still jammed, however, largely because the new beds filled with the overflow from outlying jails.

Everyone involved admits that only a massive amount of money will clean up this mess. With the lawsuit over Proposition A--a half-cent sales tax increase approved by county voters in 1988 to raise $1.6 billion for new jails and courts--pending in court, there are no prospects of that happening soon. The county Board of Supervisors will have to somehow find operating funds for East Mesa.

It may take more use of accelerated release laws and creative detention alternatives to eventually bring the Central Jail population to 750. But, under the court ruling, the crowding in the Central Jail constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. It is time to begin working toward Focht's standard.

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