Legislature Eases Way for O.C. Jail


Over the objections of the Orange County delegation, the Senate on Friday approved a controversial measure aimed at breaking the political deadlock on the Board of Supervisors over building the proposed Gypsum Canyon jail.

Lawmakers on both sides of the debate agreed that, while drafted narrowly to deal only with Orange County’s severe jail overcrowding problems, the bill by Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove) has statewide implications.

Opponents--including all four Republican senators representing Orange County--fought it as a dangerous precedent that meddled in a local issue and watered down governmental protections against the taking of private property.


Those backing the bill, however, said the extraordinary measure was necessary to make sure conservative Orange County did its part to keep criminals locked up so they don’t flee into neighboring communities. They prevailed with a 21-14 vote, sending the measure out of the Legislature and onto Gov. Pete Wilson’s desk.

“There’s something wrong for a county that so prides itself on law and order to release its people who have been convicted of crimes so they can go to other counties and continue to do what they were convicted of,” Sen. Barry Keene (D-Benicia) said after the vote.

The Umberg bill seeks to end a local impasse over how to ease severe overcrowding at Orange County’s jail system, where inmate population has swelled to almost 150% of its 3,203-bed capacity. In addition to the 4,600 inmates currently housed there, a federal court order is forcing the premature release of 850 prisoners a week--60% of whom fail to appear in court and must be rearrested, Sheriff Brad Gates has said.

County officials want to build a 6,700-bed jail on 2,500 acres owned by the Irvine Co. in Gypsum Canyon, on unincorporated land 10 miles east of downtown Anaheim. But the five-member Board of Supervisors has failed to muster the votes necessary under eminent domain law to acquire the land.

The law requires a super-majority of four supervisors to approve proceedings to take private land for public purposes. Since only Supervisors Thomas F. Riley, Roger R. Stanton and Harriett M. Wieder favor the project, that leaves the board one vote short. Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez and Supervisor Don R. Roth adamantly oppose the Gypsum Canyon jail.

Umberg’s bill would break the deadlock by requiring only a simple, three-vote majority for the condemnation vote. Although the bill doesn’t specifically name the Gypsum Canyon site, it is tailored for that property and gives the board four years to take the action.

Meanwhile, the Irvine Co. has proceeded with its plans for a nearly 8,000-home development in Gypsum Canyon. However, lawsuits against the project have been filed by environmentalists and Orange County.

Sen. John Lewis (R-Orange), whose district includes the proposed jail site, said in his maiden floor speech that the measure would start the Legislature on a “slipperly slope” of attacking private property rights.

“This bill may be crafted to take care of a regional problem, but once you establish the precedent of changing from a super-majority to a majority vote for (condemnation), that can be replicated up and down the state,” he said afterward.

Sens. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), Edward R. Royce (R-Anaheim) and Frank Hill (R-Whittier) also attacked the measure as counter to the will of their constituents. They underscored the fact that 74% of Orange County’s voters rejected a May ballot measure to add a half-cent sales tax to pay for the proposed jail.

But the delegation’s argument that the Legislature shouldn’t intrude into a local issue was lost on legislators from Los Angeles and elsewhere, who said “institutional blockage” at the Board of Supervisors endangered the public at large.

“When there is forced release of people from the jails in Orange County, where do they go?” asked Keene. “This is a highly mobile society, and I submit to you that they do not stay in Orange County. They go to the surrounding counties and perhaps to other counties in California.”

Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) presented Umberg’s bill on the floor, and accused his Orange County opponents of hypocrisy. Torres has fought unsuccessfully for years to keep a new state prison from being built in his inner-city Latino district, which already houses five detention facilities with approximately 80,000 prisoners.

“It’s a real double standard when it is OK to put a prison in low-income communities and all of a sudden, when the specter of criminality is raised in a county that doesn’t want it in their back yard, all of a sudden it’s (an issue of) local control,” said Torres.

After the vote, Torres said that Orange County should “bite the bullet” because the statewide crime problem won’t be solved “unless everybody shares in the burden.”

Reaction in Orange County was predictable.

“This is one more hurdle that we needed to get over,” said Wieder. “This is going to help the county get control of its own destiny, so I’m encouraged.”

Roth, who supervisorial district includes Gypsum Canyon, said he was not worried by passage of the bill.

“Unless Mr. Umberg puts a rider on his bill to provide the money (to purchase the land), the whole bill is moot,” he said. “Without the money, they’re sunk.”

Anaheim city officials said they would urge Wilson to veto the bill.

“If enacted, dangerous precedents could be set to further erode citizens’ democratic protections from an overbearing county government,” City Manager James Ruth said in a written statement.

“This is a bad bill. . . . The further the bill gets, the more the residents of Anaheim Hills, Yorba Linda, Placentia and Corona have to fear,” said Anaheim Mayor Fred Hunter. “We need people who are opposed to this legislation to speak up now.”

Times staff writers Maria Newman and Jim Newton contributed to this report.