Time-Bomb Program for Prisoners : The county's lax work-furlough program is an invitation to trouble

Small-time drug busts are all too common in urban America these days. But the recent arrests of three San Diegans for possession of narcotics had a troubling twist: the trio was already in custody--sort of.

All three men were residents of a private work-furlough program where they had been sentenced after being convicted of other crimes. One later testified that he escaped detection of his drug use by bribing a program official "to take care of me" when residents were subjected to unannounced drug tests.

Officials at Mid-City Work Furlough, where the three men resided, deny that charge. But obviously something is wrong when investigators in the district attorney's office uncover routine drug use among program residents.

And there have been problems in other facilities, including understandable community outrage when convicted child molesters and violent offenders have landed in programs supposedly reserved for nonviolent criminals.

How can these breakdowns in security occur? All to easily. The three private work-furlough programs in the county are the only ones in the state allowed to operate without law-enforcement supervision. Lacking such oversight, the potential for trouble is enormous.

Other counties insist that privately/run programs operate under the same rigid standards enforced at government-run facilities. That means following strict rules on everything from security to health needs.

San Diego County, on the other hand, has allowed the facilities to become--in the words of one top prosecutor--"like felony junior college."

Nobody wants private operators to cut corners for profit, so many counties also subsidize the private efforts. That ensures that access to work-furlough programs isn't a matter of wealth. It's also a prudent investment in a hedge against jail crowding.

But San Diego County is trying to get by on the cheap, routinely using private work-furlough programs to ease the jail crisis while refusing to invest the funds necessary to ensure that the facilities are safe for residents and the public.

Why? Because, say county officials, establishing a monitoring system would be too expensive and possibly lead to liability problems. But other cash-strapped counties found the funds for this critical responsibility. Why can't San Diego County?

The city, which is also suffering a budget crisis, recently found a creative way to hire a work-furlough administrator of its own later this year. Private providers agreed to pay 25 cents a day for every filled bed to cover the cost of monitoring their programs. But it's unclear whether the city administrator will be a law-enforcement officer or someone trained only in code enforcement.

The city deserves credit for at least addressing the problem. But ultimately this is a county responsibility. Countywide standards must be applied so public safety doesn't needlessly vary from community to community.

Officials of at least one program, Pacific Furlough Facility, say they are eager to reach a compromise. That's a start. But comprehensive, regional standards are the goal, not program-by-program negotiations. Cash-strapped or not, the county can't afford to continue shirking its law-enforcement responsibilities until something far worse than drug abuse erupts in one of these facilities.

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