O.C. sheriff seeks contract to house federal detainees


While Los Angeles County is releasing hundreds of inmates early because of budget cuts, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is trying to avoid similar cuts by importing hundreds of new detainees.

She has won approval to negotiate with the federal government for the Orange County jail system to house more than 800 immigration detainees. In return, the county would receive $40 million a year -- money Hutchens said would be used to avoid cutbacks in the jails and possible layoffs of deputies.

The department is facing a projected $65-million shortfall next year, and a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could go a long way in bridging that gap, Hutchens said.

The plan was approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors, but some community leaders have raised questions about whether the detainees would be released into their neighborhoods.

The detainees would be housed at the James A. Musick Facility in Irvine and the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, where city leaders expressed concerns. The jails were chosen because they have dorm-like facilities that are preferable to cells for holding the detainees.

Orange County has substantial excess capacity in its five jails. The county has more than 6,600 jail beds and on Monday almost 2,000 of those were vacant, according to Sheriff’s Department numbers, which fluctuate daily.

An L.A. County Sheriff’s Department spokesman said his agency has long housed immigration detainees at one jail in the High Desert. It’s unclear whether that crowded jail system has the capacity to accommodate more federal detainees.

In Orange County, officials said they would house only detainees who have completed a criminal sentence and have been transferred to federal custody pending confirmation or resolution of their immigration status. Most of them would end up getting deported.

The immigration agency has no facility of its own in the greater Los Angeles and Orange County area and depends on contract beds from local jails or sends its detainees to other states.

Orange County jails have released close to 400 inmates in the last few weeks. But Hutchens and others stressed that those releases were made to conform with a new state law and are not related to budget cuts. She also vowed that no county inmates would be released early to make way for the federal detainees.

“We have the space available,” she said. “The two are completely unrelated.”

In the last week, L.A. County has granted early release to 343 inmates due to budget cuts as officials downsize a jail in Castaic. Until last week, the Sheriff’s Department’s policy had been that male inmates must serve at least 80% of their time before release. Now, offenders incarcerated for crimes including check kiting, petty theft and drunk driving will serve only 50% of their time.

Hutchens approached the immigration agency soon after she became sheriff in 2008, knowing that her department was facing a large deficit and that other localities were being paid to house federal detainees.

In the 2009 fiscal year, Los Angeles County got $41 million and Santa Ana got $5.3 million for housing federal detainees, according to immigration agency numbers.

“This contract will help us fill our budget shortfall and we won’t have to make cuts,” Hutchens said before adding: “We may even have to make cuts even with the contract.”

Over the last two years there has been a steady decline in the Orange County inmate population attributed to a number of causes, including the district attorney’s program of dropping low-level charges against people in exchange for their DNA; screening of inmates for immigration status, which often results in deportations; and the three-strikes law, which sends more people to state prison, Hutchens said.

But the sheriff has yet to convince some critics.

Orange City Manager John Sibley expressed concern about where the immigration detainees would be released. Sibley’s comments at the county supervisors’ meeting last week came in the wake of the release of about 300 inmates -- under the new state guidelines -- from Theo Lacy jail, which the city found out about after the fact.

“This is another revenue measure for them and I understand that they need the revenue badly,” he said in an interview Monday. “But they also need to keep the city of Orange in mind. Our residents always get concerned and as well they should.”

Theo Lacy jail is in the middle of a sprawling county complex, sandwiched in between the 5 Freeway and the Block at Orange shopping center. UC Irvine Medical Center sits nearby.

The issue of where immigration detainees would be released has not been finalized.