11/13/2011 9:40 AM
Twice as many inmates than projected arrived at Orange County jails during the first month of an ambitious overhaul of the state’s correctional system that now has county governments taking on new responsibilities for confining and monitoring convicts.
The boost raises concerns that empty bed space could be quickly filled and valuable contracts with federal officials placed in jeopardy.
Faced with a court mandate to ease overcrowding in the California prison system, state officials instituted a plan, “inmate realignment,” calling for county law-enforcement agencies to house more nonviolent, non-sex-offender inmates in local jails.
“We knew this was coming,” Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said. “We got the estimates of how many (inmates) we were going to get, and all of us had a sense, the sheriffs up and down the state, had a sense that it was not based on anything real. It was just projections.”
More inmates than expected
Orange County authorities were told to expect an increase of roughly 143 inmates in October as part of the realignment, sheriff’s officials said.
Instead, sheriff’s officials in October booked a total of 292 inmates.
“That’s a concern now,” Hutchens said. “This was supposed to be a slow month, and it’s not. My concern is how many of those are we going to have to keep in custody, and are we going to have enough room … and enough money to deal with them.”
The increasing population has not been an immediate issue for the Sheriff’s Department, since declining crime rates over the past years has resulted in a smaller jail population.
But with less money in county coffers, the Sheriff’s Department has rented empty space to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and U.S. Marshals. The contracts, expected to bring in $21 million by the end of this year, have helped the department avoid additional layoffs amid budget cuts.
“We have no other place to cut,” Hutchens said. “If the jail starts to fill up with this new commitment, I’m going to have to reduce or cancel those contracts, which means even less money coming in to the county.”
Orange County isn’t the only area to see more inmates than expected so far.
“Some of the larger counties – i.e. Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles – have seen numbers over the original estimation,” said Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin, who serves as president of the California Sheriff’s Association. “That could be due to their larger populations.”
Meeting the demand
To meet the rising demand, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is applying for grant money from the state to expand James A. Musick Jail by more than 500 beds. If the county receives the money, it would put up 10 percent to receive a $100 million grant to expand the jail.
However, proposed changes to the minimum security jail between Lake Forest and Irvine have met with stiff resistance in the past. A proposal in 1996 to expand the jail to a 3,000-bed maximum security facility met with protest and court battles.
More recently, a small number of protesters gathered outside the jail in July 2010, when the department announced it would house immigration detainees.
But officials from the Sheriff’s Department, Irvine and Lake Forest said they have been meeting for the past two years to discuss changes to the 1,250-bed facility, and all sides described the talks as amiable.
“Every time we have a concern, (the Sheriff’s Department) have been addressing it,” said Peter Herzog, mayor of Lake Forest. “We’ve never been bashful to speak our minds.”
Irvine and Lake Forest officials have stressed two key factors – the jail should remain a minimum security facility, and the aesthetics of the jail should blend into surrounding communities.
“I will only build out incrementally as I feel that the needs of the county dictate,” Hutchens said. “My goal is to plan for the future needs of the county in terms of available bed space so we don’t get in a situation where we have to do early release in this county.”
Irvine City Manager Sean Joyce said the city wants Musick’s to maintain a small inmate population at the jail, and keep population limited to the minimum-security prisoners. Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang last month said the city could not support a “massive” expansion of Musick and would “pursue all avenues” to make sure the community isn’t affected by any changes.
A learning curve
The Sheriff’s Department isn’t the only local agency trying to adjust.
In Orange County, the transition has been funded by about $23 million from the state, the bulk of which went to the Sheriff’s Department, the county Probation Department and the county health care agency. Local police chiefs were able to make a successful last-minute push for a little less than $700,000 for municipal law enforcement agencies.
“I suspect it is not as much as some of the chiefs want but more than the amount of money I think they wanted some recognition that there is going to be an impact on the local level, especially in the short term when probation is not up to full staff,” said Huntington Beach police Chief Kenneth Small, who serves as president of the Orange County Chief of Police and Sheriffs Association.
For deputies assigned to Orange County jails, the immediate challenge has been classifying and deciding on where to house the new inmates, said Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.
“You do the best you can to keep the peace, and they have to be classified properly,” Dominguez said. “That takes a lot of work, a lot of resources and expertise.”
By the numbers
There were 5,773 inmates in the Orange County Jail system as of Nov. 3.
There were 1,264 vacant beds in the Orange County jail system.
292 inmates had arrived under the realignment plan. Of those inmates, 147 were being held on parole holds, while 145 were inmates who previously would have served their sentences in state prisons but were instead serving time in local jails under the new plan.
Information courtesy of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.