Orange County residents consider jail overcrowding a serious issue that spills over into their communities, and they show surprisingly strong support for raising their own taxes to resolve it, a new survey reveals.
Nearly half of all county residents questioned in a Times Orange County Poll said they were willing to pay higher sales taxes to build a new jail in Gypsum Canyon, about 10 miles east of Anaheim. And once reminded of the Sheriff’s Department’s “cite-and-release” policies that put criminals and suspects back on the street to free up scarce jail beds, a solid majority--60%--said they would pay an extra half-cent on the dollar to build a new county jail.
The poll, conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates, suggests that a ballot measure advocating higher taxes for new jails could win backing even in conservative Orange County, where new tax proposals usually go to die.
But jails have a conservative appeal all their own. Unlike most tax measures, jails speak to the county’s law-and-order tradition, a fact that could help explain their unusual pocketbook popularity, pollsters and poll respondents agreed.
“We need the deterrent that jails give,” said Dennis Paull of South Laguna. “We have hard-core criminals who are just being released because the jails are so crowded. We’re allowing them to mock our system.”
Paull was one of 600 Orange County residents interviewed by telephone last week for the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4%.
Confronted with an increasingly crowded jail system--more than 4,400 prisoners are locked up in jails meant to hold 3,203--county supervisors in recent months have been mulling a half-cent sales tax to help pay for new jails. Sheriff Brad Gates strongly supports such a tax and has urged the supervisors to schedule an election this year.
A half-cent tax would not nearly cover the full cost of building and operating a new jail, but it would represent a major step toward that goal. Other plans, most notably one to combine a new jail and landfill, enjoy less public support, the poll found.
Despite months of debate, the proposal to put a jail sales tax on the ballot has been thwarted by what most parties have accepted as gospel: Orange County voters, especially so soon after approving last year’s Measure M to pay for transportation improvements, were thought unlikely to back yet another increase.
The Times Orange County Poll, however, indicates that there could be a well of support.
Forty-nine percent of county residents said they would back a half-cent sales tax for building a new jail in Gypsum Canyon; 48% said they were opposed.
It also indicates a huge jump in popularity from last July, when a Sacramento pollster asked county voters whether they would pay a half-cent tax for new jails. Only 37% backed such a tax then, but the past six months have seen a flurry of activity on the jail issue, and support appears to have grown as a result.
Indeed, voters seem more likely to back a jail sales tax when they learn more about the issue. In the Times Orange County Poll, support jumped when poll respondents were reminded that the county is under a federal court order to relieve overcrowding at the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana, and that the sheriff releases prisoners early to make room for other criminals and suspects. Told of those policies, 60% favored higher taxes, compared to 38% who were opposed.
Support crossed party lines, age groups and place of residence in the county.
“These results suggest that on balance, there is a strong base to start from,” Baldassare said. “I think that people are willing to pay for jails because they want people who commit certain types of crimes to serve their sentences. . . . This is a top law enforcement concern in a county that traditionally has a law-and-order mentality.”
Particularly noteworthy, Baldassare added, is the support among older voters, who usually balk at higher taxes and who vote in greater numbers than young people. Older residents led the opposition to Measure M when it initially was defeated in 1989, but they show greater enthusiasm for new jails.
Support for new jail construction--and the tax increase to pay for it--was highest among voters 55 and older. Fifty-four percent of the older residents interviewed approved of a sales tax hike even without being told about the release policies; that compares to 47% of residents between the ages of 18 and 54.
Reminded of those polices, both groups jumped to majority support, and older voters voiced their backing in even greater numbers. Two-thirds of the 55 and older group then supported a half-cent tax, and 58% of the younger voters agreed.
“I’m a conservative,” said Elynor Wylde, of San Clemente. “I am 64 years old and a native Californian, and I’ve seen this get much worse over the years. I think we need to do something. I want to keep the felons off the streets.”
Large majorities of residents agreed, with 93% saying they believed mandatory jail time was warranted for criminals convicted of assault and battery; 85% wanted drunk drivers to spend time in jail and 75% supported mandatory jail sentences for drug users. Majorities opposed mandatory jail sentences for prostitutes and petty thieves.
Proponents of new jails in other areas have often struggled to persuade the public that more cells translate into safer communities. But The Times Orange County Poll suggests that Orange County residents already rank jails among their leading social and law enforcement concerns. And 62% said they think building a new jail will cut crime and improve public safety.
“Together with crime and gang violence, which 63% say is a big problem in Orange County, jail overcrowding is seen as by far the biggest law enforcement problem today,” Baldassare said.
Even when juxtaposed against an array of other social issues, new jail construction ranked high. Nearly half--49%--said building a new jail should be a high priority for the county; another 31% said it was a medium priority.
Only the need to improve the public school system ranked higher, with 68% putting it in the high-priority category. Jails ranked slightly higher than hospitals, clinics and social services for the poor, the survey found.
“I think jails and prisons are a necessary evil,” said Bob Salley of Orange. “Letting people go is not the answer.”
County supervisors generally agree, though they, like many of those surveyed, strongly support exploring alternatives to incarceration, such as electronic monitoring systems to keep track of criminals when they are confined to their homes. In the poll, 80% favored trying to streamline court proceedings, 72% favored sentencing criminals to perform community service, 61% favored monitoring convicts serving time under house arrest, while only 41% favored creating more halfway houses in residential areas.
While those programs have encountered little opposition, the question of where to put a new jail is a different story. That issue has long stood as one of the county’s most bitterly debated topics, pitting members of the County Board of Supervisors against each other in determined opposition.
Gypsum Canyon, just east of Anaheim, is the board majority’s site of choice. But four supervisors’ votes are needed to acquire the property through condemnation, and only three support that site. Negotiations are under way with the Irvine Co. to determine whether it would be willing to sell the land, but company officials have indicated that they intend to build homes there.
For the two supervisors who oppose Gypsum Canyon--Don R. Roth and Gaddi H. Vasquez--concerns about the cost of the facility have dovetailed with its perceived political consequences. Gypsum Canyon is in Vasquez’s district and is just a few miles from Roth’s.
The poll, however, suggests that support for Gypsum Canyon is strong countywide. Even in North County, where the jail would be located, opinion narrowly favors construction: 50% of the North County residents said they supported Gypsum Canyon, compared to 44% who opposed it.
When reminded of the federal court order and early-release policies, a majority of North County residents even said they would support taxing themselves to build the jail, which would go in their own back yards.
“There’s majority support for Gypsum Canyon in all regions of the county,” Baldassare said. “It was a surprise to me to find that even in the North County, where we’ve heard so much about opposition, 50% support Gypsum Canyon. Some people in North County are willing to overlook their self-interest in bringing forward the jail proposal, which they feel would mean safer streets.”
That’s not to say that support is unanimous in the North County, however. Or that the issue will simply go away because a majority of voters backs Gypsum Canyon.
“This is an emotional issue for us,” said Heidi Jarrett, a poll respondent who lives in Yorba Linda, a few miles from the Gypsum Canyon site. “It’s scary for people who live around here. This is a quiet community, and it’s law-abiding, and it’s safe. We’ve been worried about this jail for a long time.”
HOW THE POLL WAS CONDUCTED
The Times Orange County Poll was conducted Jan. 14-18 by Mark Baldassare & Associates. The telephone survey of 600 Orange County adults was conducted on weekday nights using a computer-generated random sample of listed and unlisted telephone numbers. For a sample of this size, the margin of error is plus or minus 4%. Sampling error is just one type of error that can affect opinion polls. Results can also be affected by question wording, survey timing and other variables. All responses were anonymous, but some agreed to be re-interviewed later for a news story.
Orange County Jail Construction Poll
Sales Tax For New Jail
“There is a proposed ballot measure to raise the sales tax in Orange County--from 6 1/2 cents to 7 cents--with the funds to be used solely for building and operating a new jail in Gypsum Canyon, 10 miles east of Anaheim. If the election were held today, would you vote yes or no on the one-half-cent sales tax for the new county jail?”
Don’t Know: 3%
Don’t Know: 3
Don’t Know: 5
“Because Orange County is under federal court order to limit overcrowding in the central county jail, many of whom commit less serious crimes and are ‘cited and released’ rather than held in jail after their arrest. Also, most convicts who are serving sentences receive ‘early releases’ from the Orange County jail. Knowing this, would you vote yes or no on the one-half-cent sales tax increase to build and operate a new county jail?” Yes: 60%
Don’t Know: 2%
Don’t Know: 3
Don’t Know: 1
“Do you favor or oppose each of these locations for building a new Orange County jail?”
Chiriaco Summit, 100 miles east of Orange County in the Riverside Desert:
Don’t Know: 4%
Gypsum Canyon, 10 miles east of Anaheim:
Don’t Know: 8%
At the Central Jail site, in Downtown Santa Ana:
Don’t Know: 3%
At the James A. Musick jail site, near El Toro:
Don’t Know: 14%
Opinion on Gypsum Canyon Site, By Region
Total North West Central South Favor 60% 50% 63% 68% 64% Oppose 32 44 28 25 26 Don’t Know 8 6 9 7 10
“Do you consider each of the following Orange County issues to be a high priority for more local funding, a medium priority or a low priority?”
Percentage who answered high priority:
Improving the public school system: 68%
Building a new jail: 49%
Increase police protection: 48%
Expanding public hospitals and clinics: 47%
Expanding social services for the poor: 45%
Jail Overcrowding: Problem Seriousness
“In Orange County today, how big a problem are each of these issues--a big problem, somewhat of a problem, a small problem or no problem at all?”
Don’t Big Somewhat Small None Know Crime and gang violence 63% 27% 6% 3% 1% Overcrowding in O.C. jails 61 18 3 4 14 Not enough courts and judges 31 27 10 17 15 A lack of police officers 21 32 14 23 10