ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Jail Overcrowding Won't Just Go Away

The people have spoken decisively about a proposal to raise sales taxes by a half-cent in order to pay for jails and criminal justice facilities in Orange County. Measure J went down in defeat by an overwhelming margin Tuesday. But the jail overcrowding problem will not go away.

The Board of Supervisors, Sheriff Brad Gates and the Orange County Regional Justice Facilities Commission now must redouble their efforts and also help build voter support for a solution--something obviously, and sadly, lacking with Measure J.

Leadership should begin with Board Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez and Supervisor Don R. Roth, both of whom publicly opposed Measure J because they objected to the jail site, in Gypsum Canyon, that their board selected four years ago. They bear a special burden of responsibility to offer a workable alternative.

It's too early to tell whether Measure J was defeated because of opposition to Gypsum Canyon, which is near Anaheim Hills, or because of a taxpayers' revolt. But if the canyon siting caused the defeat, the question then must be: where else? Gypsum Canyon was selected after a seven-year, $7-million review process, during which every possible site for a new jail was reviewed. It would be a shame to reopen the site issue after all that work and expense. Vasquez and Roth, in particular, must say whether they are willing to put the county through that process again--if another site could be identified.

Measure J's defeat does takes some steam out of a bill being carried by Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove) that would allow a 3-2 majority of the board (four votes are now needed) to condemn the Gypsum Canyon site, which its owner, the Irvine Co., does not want to sell. And even if that bill becomes law, that will not resolve the problem of how to pay for the site or the jail.

That is all the more reason to present the county with a more carefully crafted proposal to deal with the jail crisis. Don't waste the voters' time and money on any subsequent ballot measure unless it provides a clear blueprint.

Measure J did accomplish several positive things. It called attention to the jails problem, which for too long has been on the back burner, and it necessitated the formation of the jails commission, which has begun to take a serious look at the county's criminal justice needs. That commission is the logical place to continue the work of setting priorities.

One thing is clear: Measure J's defeat doesn't give the Board of Supervisors an excuse to ignore the county's dire need for a new jail. Like a maximum-security cell, there's no escape from this problem.

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