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Sheriff Urges O.C. to Hurry Jail Expansion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sheriff Brad Gates urged Orange County officials to move forward immediately on expanding Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange and adding more beds to James A. Musick Branch Jail in Irvine to ease an “impossible” overcrowding situation that has forced early release of nearly 55,000 inmates in the past two years.

“The current overcrowding of our existing jail facilities forces me to release early tens of thousands of criminals from jail,” Gates wrote in a seven-page letter that county planners received Monday. “Our current inability to provide enough beds for the number of inmates booked continues to be our most frustrating problem.”

Gates also suggested that the county reconsider building a jail on a site next to The Pond of Anaheim--a plan that has been virtually abandoned since the new arena was constructed.

Jail overcrowding has been a vexing problem in Orange County for a decade, but the troubles have been compounded in recent weeks by inmate disturbances and concerns that the new “three strikes and you’re out” law is further cramming county lockups.

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To make his case for more beds, the sheriff loosed a barrage of statistics on the toll of chronic crowding--and urged the controversial expansion of the Orange branch jail without delay for an environmental study.

Supervisor William G. Steiner said Tuesday that expanding existing jails would be a better solution than taking yet another stab at building a new jail in the county. He said the Central Men’s Jail and Intake Release Center in Santa Ana should be added to the list of possible expansion sites.

“The Theo Lacy expansion is simply buying some time, but it is not solving the bigger problem of meeting the need of jail space over the long haul,” Steiner said. “It is appropriate to look at these sites. It’s easier to expand an existing site than site a new jail. From my perspective, Theo Lacy, Santa Ana and James Musick offer the most practical expansion opportunities.”

The county is studying the environmental impact of a three-phase expansion of Theo Lacy that would include nine additional housing units with up to 4,480 jail beds. City of Orange officials and residents have sued the county in an effort to block the housing of maximum-security inmates at Theo Lacy.

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In his letter to the county’s Environmental Management Agency, Gates stated that:

* The county is about 3,200 jail beds short of its current needs, and by the year 2006 will be in need of nearly 7,100 new beds. “What that means,” Gates wrote, “is that unless we get more jail beds, tens of thousands of increasingly more dangerous criminals will be released back into the community.”

* In 1993, a total of more than 94,800 days were cut from the sentences of 3,398 inmates who on average saw 20% of their sentences slashed.

* A total of 826 inmates--an average of 2.3 per day--who were released early from jail in 1993 were arrested on new charges during the time they would have been in custody.

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* Nearly 60% of the people who were cited and released for misdemeanor offenses have failed to appear in court on their citations.

* The state’s new “three strikes and you’re out” law is translating into longer stays in jail and increased demands for beds. Currently, there are nearly 60 inmates who qualify for permanent incarceration under the law.

For years, the sheriff has been under federal court order to limit the overcrowded conditions in his jails.

As a result, Gates has turned to early releases and a cite-and-release program. Since 1986, Gates said, he has stopped booking into jail most misdemeanor arrestees or people with arrest warrants with bail under $5,000 because of limited bed space. Furthermore, he said he does not accept federal or state parole violators at the jail.

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Although Gates is legally responsible for remedying the overcrowding situation, he has no authority to build or acquire new jail beds.

For the most part, his lobbying efforts for more space have been thwarted. County officials have been unable to find either the money or a politically acceptable location for a new jail.

Many county officials say the Theo Lacy expansion is the most viable short-term solution to the overcrowding problem. A recent report by the county administrative office also concluded that the most “cost effective” way to bring new jail beds into the system is expand existing facilities.

Lately, Gates has pinned his hopes on the Theo Lacy expansion, which he wants to happen as soon as possible. In his letter to county planners, Gates said he thinks an environmental impact study would be costly and is unnecessary under state law.

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City of Orange officials have also written to the county planners about the expansion, asking them to consider additions at other jail facilities instead. They also raise the possibility of building a jail at sites such as the Marine Corps air stations at Tustin and El Toro, which are scheduled for closure.

“The city is extremely concerned about the negative economic impact of the proposed expansion of the Theo Lacy on the city in general and surrounding businesses in particular,” City Manager David F. Dixon wrote to the county.

The Orange lawsuit against the county over placing maximum-security inmates in Theo Lacy was filed earlier this year. Theo Lacy was intended for only a minimum- to medium-security inmates. City and county officials are trying to reach an out-of-court settlement, which may cover jail expansion as well.

Early Criminal Release

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Last year, 3,398 sentenced criminals were released from Orange County jails after serving an average of 80% of their time. A sample of serious crimes and the number of prisoners who had time shaved off their sentences:

Average Maximum Total number days number days Offense releases released early released early Assault with deadly weapon 183 31 106 Assault and battery 79 24 151 Robbery 158 46 106 Burglary 317 35 181 Driving under influence 140 26 125 Rape with foreign object 2 64 76 Lewd acts with children 20 41 74

Source: Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates


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