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O.C. May Have to Rush Jail Expansion Work : Court: Supervisors weigh options after judge orders sheriff jailed unless early inmate releases stop by Nov. 1.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Orange County Board of Supervisors may have to speed up work on a jail expansion--draining its budget of badly needed cash and possibly forcing government layoffs--in order to convince 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 the first phase of it open by Nov. 1.

On Friday, Municipal Judge Richard W. Stanford Jr. ordered Gates to spend 30 days in jail and pay a $17,000 fine unless he could 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 jails, which have been overcrowded for years, typically hold about 4,400 prisoners in cells designed to house 3,203, and sheriff’s deputies are releasing about 850 prisoners a week 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 let go during the past several years.

As they hurried to develop a response to Stanford’s sentence, county lawyers huddled in meetings much of the day Monday to weigh their options. They and other top county officials are expected to brief 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 the ideas, officials said, 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.

* Erect 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 since more serious offenders cannot be housed at that jail.

* Find a new jail site by taking over a hotel or warehouse and converting it into a temporary facility, an idea that Stanford has previously suggested. That is considered impossible in such a short time.

* 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. Alternatively or additionally, the county could 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 remove the fine and the sentence based on the county’s willingness to press ahead with that project. That proposal could go forward even as an appeal was being argued and would provide the county with insurance in case the appeal was rejected.

“That’s probably the most likely one,” Robert L. Richardson, an aide to Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, said of the Theo Lacy 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 to that jail in the city of Orange, originally was expected to open this fall. It was tentatively delayed until January as part of the county’s effort to close a $67.7-million budget gap.

Stanford, though declining to predict how he would rule before the county submits a plan to him, said opening the Theo Lacy expansion early might be enough to satisfy him.

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“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.”

It would also come at a high price.

Estimates for moving up the date of completion varied wildly from $650,000 to nearly $2 million. Budget experts said Monday, after conducting a long review of staffing costs for the new jail and other county detention facilities, that the final figure for accelerating the Theo Lacy expansion is likely to be closer to $650,000 than the higher estimates.

County programs would probably have to be cut to pay for opening Theo Lacy early; that means layoffs and service cutbacks to county residents.

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“You’re talking about the need for a huge number of additional staff,” Stanton aide Richardson said. “There’s not a lot of extra dollars floating around.”

County officials estimate that the average employee receives about $47,500 a year in salary and benefits, so trimming an additional $650,000 from the budget could translate into about a dozen more layoffs. Those would come on top of roughly 350 positions already targeted for elimination.

The proposed county budget includes several suggestions for cutting back on the early releases of prisoners, and they were outlined in a brief submitted to Judge Stanford. Neither the Theo Lacy expansion nor a proposed expansion of the county’s home confinement program are scheduled to be ready until January, however, and Stanford said he wanted quicker action.

Although board members and Gates have clashed on occasion, several supervisors said Monday that they sympathized with the sheriff in his dispute with the courts. Gates is under federal court order to limit the population in the housing units of the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana, and county officials are worried that if he overcrowds the outlying facilities in an effort to reduce the early release programs, the federal order might be extended to those jails as well.

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“The sheriff has been a very willing partner in the county’s quest to try to address this issue,” Board Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez said. “We are working together on a solution.”

Forced to choose between missing the judge’s deadline and cutting into their already lean budget, many county officials also grumbled that judges are not doing enough to solve the problem themselves.

Some supervisors complain, for instance, that a proposal to hold weekend arraignments has not been pursued by the judges, even though some county officials maintain that the program would alleviate jail overcrowding and help thwart early releases.

Stanford dismissed that suggestion, saying that weekend arraignments would do little to help the overcrowding problem and would only end up wasting the county money.

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Supervisor Don R. Roth, however, retorted that weekend arraignments and more flexible court hours might help clear jail cells of prisoners awaiting a court hearing.

“Maybe the judge would help us and speed up the whole court process,” Roth said. “That would really help.”


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