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Jail Expansion May Be Hurried to Keep Sheriff Gates Out of It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Orange County Board of Supervisors may have to speed up work on a jail expansion--draining the county coffers of badly needed cash and possibly forcing government layoffs--in order to persuade a judge that prisoners will no longer be released from jail prematurely, officials said Monday.

The effort, which could keep Sheriff Brad Gates from going to jail, means hastening construction work on the Theo Lacy Branch Jail expansion to get it open by Nov. 1.

Last Friday, Municipal Judge Richard W. Stanford Jr. ordered Gates to spend 30 days in his own jail and pay a $17,000 fine unless he could produce a plan to stop the early release of some prisoners by Nov. 1.

“It’s a great disappointment to me that the judge has thrown the gauntlet down to us,” Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said. “We’re going to talk about our options, including Theo Lacy, but money is a problem.”

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The county’s five jails, which have been overcrowded for years, typically hold about 4,400 prisoners in cells designed to house 3,203, and deputies release about 850 prisoners a week, some of them convicted of misdemeanors, to make room for more serious offenders.

Most of the releases are legal, but Stanford found Gates in contempt of court for 17 prisoners that his department freed over several years.

As they hurried to respond to Stanford’s sentence, county lawyers huddled in meetings for much of the day Monday. They are expected to join other county officials in briefing the supervisors in closed session today.

According to a number of officials involved in the discussions, several options have been considered, though many are likely to be discarded. Among them, the county could:

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* Ignore Stanford’s deadline and simply pay the fine. That would probably mean that Gates would be sentenced to jail, and few officials seem inclined to let that happen.

* Set up more tents at the James A. Musick branch jail, where 320 prisoners already live in four military-style tents. That solution is considered short-term at best, however, and would only accommodate minimum-security prisoners.

* Create a new jail site by converting a hotel or warehouse into a temporary facility, an idea that Stanford has suggested before. That is considered impossible to do by Nov. 1.

* Appeal Stanford’s sentence, and hope that a higher court will give the county at least until Jan. 1 to put expansion plans into effect. The county could also take its case to federal court and argue that Gates’ civil rights are being violated by Stanford’s order.

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* Accelerate the Theo Lacy expansion and hope that Stanford will lift the fine and the sentence, based on the county’s show of cooperation. That proposal could go forward even as an appeal was being argued, and it would provide the county with insurance in case the appeal was rejected.

“That’s probably the most likely one,” said Robert L. Richardson, an aide to Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, of the last option. “It’s a question of whether it’s possible to do it, but it’s the one we’re looking at right now.”

The first phase of the Theo Lacy expansion, which will add 250 to 275 beds, was originally expected to be finished this fall. It was then tentatively delayed until January as part of the county’s effort to close a $67.7-million budget gap.

County budget experts put the price tag for moving up the completion date at anywhere from $650,000 to nearly $2 million, most of it for staffing the new jail.

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“You’re talking about the need for a huge number of additional staff,” Richardson said. Officials say even the low figure translates into a dozen layoffs, which would come on top of 350 posts already targeted for elimination--the first in county government since 1978.

Stanford declined to predict how he would rule before the county submits a plan to him, but he said the prospect of opening the Theo Lacy expansion early might satisfy him.

“If they were to come in and say: ‘We’re going to do this . . . and as of Nov. 1, there’ll be no one else released (earlier than the law permits),’ I’d say OK,” Stanford said. “It would depend on how they said it, and when it was going to happen.”


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