O.C. to seek state funds for jail plan
Orange County supervisors voted Tuesday to seek $100 million for a long-stalled jail expansion despite long-standing opposition to the project -- and created new adversaries in the process.
County officials have been trying to expand James A. Musick Branch Jail outside Irvine for more than a decade but have been hamstrung by court challenges and funding shortfalls, even as a swelling inmate population left the jails chronically overcrowded. The county was under a federal court order until 2005 to reduce overcrowding; the system had an average of 1,600 more inmates per day than it was designed to hold.
In 2006, then-Sheriff Michael S. Carona adopted a plan to more than triple the number of beds at Musick, to 4,400 from its current level of 1,256. But the county had no way to pay for it and considered floating $250 million in bonds.
Now, under a new plan by acting Sheriff Jack Anderson approved by the board, the county will apply to the state for funding through a program designed to build jails and prisons with a focus on rehabilitation. The state has $750 million available for first-round funding of jail construction programs; the county’s applications are due Tuesday, and grants will be awarded in May.
In return for the money to finance the expansion of Musick, the county would turn part of Theo Lacy Jail in Orange into a “reentry” facility to help state inmates prepare for their return to society. Nearly 300 beds would be set aside for the rehabilitation program, under which state prison inmates originally from Orange County would return to serve the end of their sentences while taking classes to prepare for life on the outside.
The cities of Irvine and Lake Forest, which has houses just 700 feet from the Musick site on unincorporated county land, have fought the expansion for years, even suing -- ultimately unsuccessfully -- to stop it.
But the plan to create the rehabilitation facility at Theo Lacy brought instant opposition from Orange city officials, who said the county must get their permission for any significant changes in the jail’s operation under a 1995 legal settlement.
They complained that the county had not adequately communicated with the city about its plans and said Orange was “already doing its part” to house county facilities.
“They have grave concerns,” Orange City Manager John Sibley said of City Council members. “Bringing state inmates into the city of Orange is of concern to us.”
Orange Councilman Denis Bilodeau put it more bluntly: “Paroling state prisoners out of the front door of Theo Lacy will be met with furious opposition by the city of Orange.”
For their part, Irvine officials remain opposed to the Musick expansion. They dispute the county’s overcrowding claims -- saying the most recent figures show the jail population declining -- and fear the county will use the expanded site to house prisoners from other counties as a revenue source. They do not want higher-risk prisoners housed in a facility that abuts the planned Orange County Great Park.
“It’s not exactly the kind of bed and breakfast I was hoping for,” Irvine Mayor Beth Krom said in an interview Tuesday.
Lake Forest Mayor Mark Tettemer took a more conciliatory stance, saying: “It’s an opportunity for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to try and do what they intend to do. . . . Their objective is to have enough jail space for the county, so I understand that need.”
The board voted 3 to 0 to move forward with Anderson’s plan; Supervisors Chris Norby and Janet Nguyen were absent.
Supervisor Bill Campbell, whose district includes both Musick and Theo Lacy, voted in favor of the plan despite the opposition from his own communities. Campbell is up for reelection this year but faces nominal opposition from a political unknown, self-described businessman Donald Ritze.
“Frankly, we’re at capacity,” Campbell said in explaining his vote. “If we don’t do something, we’ll have early releases.”