ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Lessons From a Jail Furor

The Orange County Board of Supervisors can do a major service by learning some lessons from its battle with Costa Mesa--and its subsequent retreat--over where to put a jail for low-risk inmates.

The county threw in the towel this month on converting buildings in Costa Mesa into a work-furlough facility, where those convicted of offenses such as drunk driving and not paying child support would spend their nights. During the day they would work at their regular jobs.

The county concluded that it could not overcome community opposition to the project. The fact that there would be foes in Costa Mesa did not surprise county officials; they long have known that the "not-in-my-back-yard" syndrome was alive and well across Orange County. But jail backers failed to take the basic anticipatory steps needed to convince all communities that they are a part of the whole and must share the county's burdens.

City officials complained from the start that the county stalled on providing details of its plans and explaining why it picked two particular apartment buildings in a residential neighborhood as its site.

A furor arose quickly; the county switched to another proposed location in Costa Mesa and then to another, but the damage was done. The last site, a 50-room motel on Harbor Boulevard, looked like a good choice. It was far from residential neighborhoods and in an area with few businesses. One city councilman supported the location. But the county backed off in the face of continuing opposition.

Orange County has suffered a jail overcrowding problem for well over a decade. The supervisors rightly decided to put inmates with no propensity for violence or felonies in work furlough facilities or under house arrest. The county must continue the fight for satellite jails.

But next time it should invite city officials to tour existing facilities in Anaheim and Buena Park, and fully brief residents on its plans before any furor erupts. Jails are necessary, even if no city wants one. The county will have to spread the pain and explain what it is doing every step of the way.

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