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Jail Crowding Issue Back in Court Today : Justice: County officials have been reminded that they face jail or fines unless action is taken to reduce the number of inmates at the downtown facility.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With San Diego County’s overcrowded jails due for court scrutiny again today, a Superior Court judge has renewed threats to jail or fine county officials unless some action is taken “more or less” immediately on the aging County Jail downtown.

After a hearing last month, El Cajon Superior Court Judge James Malkus sent a lengthy letter reminding county officials that another judge had ruled 10 years ago that conditions at the downtown jail were cruel and unusual.

Inviting comments at a hearing today, Malkus said that, unless county officials take steps to bring the population at the downtown jail from around 1,000 inmates to the limit of 750 imposed 10 years ago, he may have to consider “judicial sanctions or alternatives.”

At previous hearings, Malkus has indicated he might issue contempt of court citations or impose fines on county supervisors or on jail officials.

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Various county officials have been summoned to the hearing by the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the suit against the county. The underlying dilemma, however, is whether anything they can say or Malkus can do could prompt a solution to the classic conflict the case has always presented.

The U.S. Constitution requires the county to run the jail according to bare minimum standards of health and safety. But officials consistently claim that the financially beleaguered county simply does not have enough money to meet those standards.

Now the county may be worse off than ever, says Norman Hickey, its chief administrative officer, as the state prepares to cut an added $36 million in funding from what the county expected to get this year.

The ACLU has subpoenaed Hickey to testify at today’s hearing. It also has issued legal invitations to Sheriff John Duffy, who runs the jails, and Leon Williams, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, which pays for them.

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Rich Robinson, director of the county’s Office of Special Projects, which since 1986 has been charged with addressing all jail-related issues, also has been told to appear.

After 10 years of waiting, the ACLU wants compliance now, said one of its attorneys, Betty Wheeler.

The group believes that officials have failed to take “any kind of meaningful steps to try to bring the population back down” to 750 from about 1,000, Wheeler said. “Nor are they taking reasonable steps to make sure that the population won’t increase in the future.”

The ACLU actually has filed two suits against the county alleging jail overcrowding. The two have been joined for hearings before Malkus.

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The judge said at a hearing July 2 that he was pleased with conditions at five outlying jails, the focus of the second suit. At that hearing, the county reported that it had met various population caps at the five jails--at Vista, Descanso, El Cajon, Chula Vista and the women’s jail at Las Colinas in Santee. But it was several hundred inmates over the limit of 750 downtown.

Ten years ago, San Diego Superior Court Judge James Focht set the downtown cap at 750 after a seven-month trial over the first lawsuit, saying that any total above that figure violated the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

According to the ACLU, overcrowding leads to a variety of ills, including understaffing by deputies and lack of inmate access to recreation, visitation and their lawyers.

The ACLU agreed in May, 1988, to a temporary cap of 1,250 at the downtown jail while the Vista jail was being emptied for renovation. At a hearing last June, with Vista fully operational, Malkus ordered the downtown cap lowered to 1,000.

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In his letter, which was sent July 11, the judge said he had every intention of returning the cap to 750 at the downtown jail.

As he had done before at various hearings, Malkus suggested in the letter that the county consider putting up tents as temporary housing. He then went on to make a variety of other suggestions--nine, in all. Among them was looking into the possibility of immediately occupying abandoned or surplus warehouses, schools or hospitals.

Because of lag times, he said, the county might want to immediately begin hiring and training officers to staff facilities such as the East Mesa jail, a 1,000-bed facility near the U.S.-Mexican border and seven miles east of Interstate 805 that is due to be completed in the spring of 1991.

Or the county might conduct “exploratory discussions” with each of the law enforcement agencies in the county and each local government to see if police officers could be loaned temporarily to the county so it could open the East Mesa facility on schedule.

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Every available avenue of financing must be explored, Malkus said.

Deputy County Counsel Nathan Northup, the county lawyer to whom Malkus wrote the letter, could not be reached last week for comment.

But Malkus said in the letter that he does not believe the county intends to ignore the “duty and obligation to this community” imposed 10 years ago.

“I would rather choose to believe that the county will indeed comply within a relatively short time,” he said.

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