Sheriff addresses jail overcrowding, drug abuse

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens talked jails, guns and drugs Thursday morning at a breakfast event with members of Newport Beach's business community.

Hutchens, who took the podium at the city's central library as part of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce's monthly Wake Up! Newport event series, first discussed the impacts of the state's efforts to relieve overcrowding in prisons on the county.

Although Orange County's jails are in better shape than most jurisdictions, she said that when it comes to jail population management, the department isn't getting complacent.

"I am concerned," she said. "I'm very concerned."

While the county's jail system technically can house more than 7,000 inmates, she explained, some inmates accused of the most serious crimes, such as child molestation and gang activity, must be separated from the general population. About 400 inmates are in custody for murder, she added.

Since the state shifted responsibility for many offenders back to counties in 2011 as part of its prison realignment, the department has taken measures to stem a ballooning jail population, Hutchens said.

About 450 low-level offenders are participating in alternatives to incarceration, including community work programs and electronic monitoring, she said.

A major expansion of James A. Musick Facility in Irvine is in the works, funded by a pair of state grants. That, she said, will add 512 regular jail beds, plus another 300 beds at a facility that will also house programming for inmates designed to keep them from coming back.

Next, the sheriff garnered gasps and murmurs as she detailed the perils of drug abuse, which plays a huge role in crime.

"Just about every inmate in my custody has used and abused drugs," she said.

And wealthy communities, such as Newport Beach, are far from immune to the problem.

Hutchens mentioned recent increases in heroin abuse — particularly in South Orange County communities, where young people become addicted to prescription pain killers after raiding their parents' medicine cabinets and then try heroin as a cheaper alternative.

She also described how the makers of so-called designer drugs, such as "Molly," a purer form of the main ingredient in Ecstasy known as MDMA, stay a step ahead of authorities by subtly changing their formulas.

And e-cigarettes? She said those pose dangers that haven't yet been fully explored.

Ultimately, Hutchens underscored the importance of talking to kids before they encounter those temptations.

"Kids really do listen to you," she told the audience.

Then, Hutchens took on the topic of the county's concealed weapons permit application backlog, which was sparked by a loosening of the county's policy for granting the permits in response to a pro-gun court ruling.

About 3,000 applications have poured in following the rule change in late February — six times the number the department typically sees in an entire year.

Hutchens said the department is still working to "get a handle" on the situation, with beefed-up staffing levels and extended processing hours.

Finally, the sheriff fielded questions.

Asked about a recent wave of deputies retiring, she said that law enforcement tends to be "cyclical," in that regard.

She said the department needs young people with fresh ideas.

"They do ask, 'Why?' a lot," she said with a sly grin. "That's good."

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