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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Don’t Shoot the Sheriff

Orange County Municipal Court Judge Robert W. Stanford Jr.'s threat to jail Sheriff Brad Gates for contempt of court has shock value. But he would err in punishing Gates for the failures of an entire political system--including, by the way, the judicial branch. Other than focusing attention on the county’s longstanding jail crisis, the threat serves little purpose.

Stanford last week fined Gates $17,000 and sentenced him to 30 days in jail for releasing 17 prisoners early as part of Gates’ efforts to ease overcrowding in the county’s jails. The sentence was delayed until Nov. 1 to give Gates a chance to deal with the problem. But Gates won’t have many choices until, among other things, the Board of Supervisors gets serious about finding a remedy.

The sheriff already is under a federal order to relieve overcrowding in the county’s Central Men’s Jail. To comply, Gates has done basically what almost anyone in his position would have done: He began early-release programs and limited the population of branch jails.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the county over jail conditions 16 years ago, and U.S. District Judge Gary Taylor are watching carefully to make sure that inmate populations at the county’s branch jails don’t reach levels that would tempt the federal court to impose additional restrictions.

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Meanwhile, the county is no closer to building a much-needed new jail. Measure J, which would have increased sales taxes by half a cent to pay for a $1-billion jail in Gypsum Canyon near the Anaheim Hills, was defeated at the polls in May. The Board of Supervisors, which should be leading the quest for a solution, remains immobilized.

Things will ease a bit when the county opens a new 250-bed section of its medium-security Theo Lacy Branch Jail in January, and another section will open in November, 1992. That timetable could be stepped up, but not without imposing an added burden on the county budget, threatened by a $67.7-million shortfall.

Stanford and other Municipal Court judges believe that the prisoner-release programs cause a “lack of respect for the court system.” But there are innovative things that Municipal Courts could be doing--perhaps including video arraignments, weekend arraignments and longer court sessions--to help the situation.

Sending the sheriff to jail won’t solve the problem. Others, including the municipal courts, must help.

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