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Enough Backward Steps: Time to Stride Ahead on Jails : * Ways must be found to expand overall cell capacity incrementally, despite the scuttling of Gypsum Canyon planning, on which $7 million was spent.

Within 10 days, the Orange County Board of Supervisors will have before it yet another report on jails, this one offering suggestions for expanding inmate capacity.

The report being prepared by county staff members will come at the end of a year in which, despite the county’s deepening jail crisis, there were only backward steps. In May, voters soundly rejected a half-cent sales tax designed to pay for building a new, 6,720-bed jail, which the board four years ago had decided should be built in Gypsum Canyon near Anaheim Hills. In October, the board voted, 4 to 1, to abandon efforts to buy the canyon site and build a jail there.

Besides the time lost, the board spent more than $7 million for planning studies that now collect dust. The decision not to build the jail also returned the county to ground zero in terms of future planning. Gone, probably forever, is the notion that the county can build in a remote site one gigantic jail that will solve all of the county’s jail problems. What’s more, the defeat of the sales-tax measure and the disintegration of the board’s resolve makes it highly unlikely that a jail can ever be built on land not already owned by the county.

The question now is: What are the supervisors prepared to do in a post-Gypsum Canyon era?

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SHIFT NEEDED: A major shift in direction on the board--from doing nothing to doing something--is needed. The county must find a way to expand the overall jail capacity incrementally. The system now jams 4,400 inmates into cells built for 1,200 fewer. In addition, Sheriff Brad Gates grants early releases or cites and releases about 850 inmates a week, just to keep within jail overcrowding guidelines set by a U.S. District Court judge. Besides undermining the county’s law enforcement efforts, these releases have put Gates on a collision course with Municipal Court judges, who have threatened to jail the sheriff.

Both short-term and long-term solutions to the jail crisis will be costly. The county does not have the money now to make improvements.

But that is no excuse for doing nothing. Some measures could take years to get to the point where the county has a plan in place, with money to implement it being the remaining obstacle. Otherwise, the county may risk losing opportunities.

The board should first focus on maximizing the use of all its current sites. That could include adding new cells at James A. Musick Branch Jail near Irvine or re-configuring Musick so it can accept medium-security as well as minimum-security inmates. Also, Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange, now undergoing an expansion that will nearly double its capacity to 1,200 beds, could add 300 to 500 more beds by double-bunking. Theo Lacy could be expanded even further if county officials move an animal shelter that is now next door.

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At the same time, the board must think ahead to more long-term solutions, such as new jails. County-owned locations that make sense for a jail at some future date are the 7-acre Katella-Douglass site near Anaheim Stadium and downtown Santa Ana, or perhaps on the site where the Sheriff’s Department headquarters is now housed.

Neither short-term nor long-term solutions will be easy. Reallocating or increasing inmates at any of the county’s jail facilities, let alone building new jails, will undoubtedly cause acute political problems for individual supervisors. But the problem is so severe that difficult decisions must be made soon, one way or the other. Each member of the board--in particular, Board Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez, who was instrumental in shooting down Gypsum Canyon--must be willing to stand up to the political heat in his or her own district.

ALTERNATIVES TO JAIL: Besides adding cells, however, the county now needs to aggressively pursue additional ways to reduce the need for jail beds, including expanding current programs that offer alternatives to incarceration. Alternatives are primarily aimed at allowing criminals accused of lesser crimes to fulfill their sentences through work furlough, “house arrest” or other programs, so they will not need to be incarcerated. Under a barrage of lawsuits demanding reductions in crowding, Gates has steadily expanded these programs in county facilities. But there is a need for more.

The county should also add to programs aimed at reducing recidivism, such as job training and substance abuse counseling.

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Gates has said that he has already maximized the cite-and-release and early-release programs and that to expand them further would jeopardize public safety. Release programs have also left him with an abundance of minimum-security beds and too few medium- and maximum-security beds. However, supervisors have complained that Gates could help by classifying for minimum security some inmates who otherwise would be ineligible for certain facilities. If that can be done without jeopardizing public safety, Gates should move ahead quickly on it.

In addition, the board should look into new technology, such as video arraignments, which have proven successful in other counties in reducing the need for jail cells. Local judges need to do their part by exploring, or adding to, current arraignment programs, including weekend and night court arraignments.

BLUE-RIBBON PANEL: But even more is needed to give the county a fresh perspective on long-term solutions to the jail crisis. To do this, the board should consider creating a blue-ribbon citizens commission composed of leaders who have a vital concern for the county’s future. While some in the county believe that a citizens commission would slow down an already-glacial decision-making process, there are some very good reasons for establishing one.

As the defeat of the sales-tax measure showed, Orange County lacks the community consensus that would be needed for the electorate to make the tough decisions required to face the county’s jail crisis. The members could speak to organizations about the seriousness of the crisis and the need for every part of the county to share in its solution. In addition, the recommendations of community leaders involved in a jails commission could provide supervisors with the arms-length distance they might need to endorse tough decisions affecting their own bailiwicks. Commissioners could also provide the supervisors and the sheriff with prestigious allies in a process in which they now have few. And by the way, let’s get a truly broad-based group, not just the usual players from the development community.

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But, if such a commission were formulated, several things would have to be done to make sure it did not stall the process. For example, the board should move ahead with short-term solutions such as those already outlined. Also, a commission, if formed, should be given a relatively short time period, as well as clear parameters, within which to complete its work. For example, if the commission was asked to evaluate sites for new jails, it should be limited only to county-owned land.

BUFFER ZONE: If set on the right course, a commission could prove very useful. It could research how other jurisdictions have handled similar jail problems. It could study privatization of certain aspects of jail construction and operation, which has been tried in other counties with some success. A commission might even provide a buffer between the board and Gates, who quarrel so much now that they fail to work together to solve problems.

None of the courses available to the Board of Supervisors are without their political hazards. But to delay further would only add to the failures in board leadership that have brought the county to this point. Quick action is needed to show that the board is determined to set a new course in resolving its longstanding jail crisis.


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