The once fierce opposition by affected cities to expanding Musik Jail in Lake Forest appears to be easing after repeated assurances from the sheriff that it will house only low-level offenders.
But not everyone is placated. Irvine City Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway continues to argue forcefully and publicly that Sheriff Sandra Hutchens' broad proposal can be easily become a road map for building a maximum-security prison.
"The current sheriff — and future sheriffs — are on a trajectory to build a full-scale prison at Musick, and that is what I oppose," Lalloway said.
Musick Jail is a 1,250-bed minimum-security facility housing lesser offenders. It is walking distance from the Orange County Great Park, a 1,347-acre metropolitan park in Irvine that city officials hope will one day rival Balboa Park in San Diego.
Last week, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved efforts to obtain $100 million in state grant funds to build a 512-bed facility at the jail. Sheriff's officials have said they must expand the jail because of plans to realign state prisons and increase the number of inmates at county jails.
Lake Forest and Irvine fought expansion plans more than a decade ago, filing lawsuits to limit the number of inmates allowed. The cities ultimately lost, giving the sheriff license to expand the jail into a maximum-security prison that could easily house 7,600 inmates.
Irvine again filed suit in 2008 when the sheriff sought state grant funds to expand the jail. The city dropped its case when the county decided not to pursue funding.
Though the Irvine City Council has discussed in closed session filing another suit, the majority of city officials have been subdued in their remarks about the expansion, a departure from the determined opposition of the past.
This is in large part the result of the sheriff's assurances that hardcore criminals will not be housed at Musick Jail.
Documents obtained by Voice of OC, however, validate at least some of the concerns raised by Lalloway. The documents include some details of negotiations between the sheriff and the cities, showing that high-level offenders — those most likely to escape — could be arraigned at Musick Jail and held there for as long as a week afterward.
The documents also state that the sheriff plans to increase the size of Musick to 3,100 inmates by 2018.
"Violent criminals, including murderers, rapists and drug traffickers, can potentially be housed at Musick for up to a week," Lalloway said.
Nonetheless, Sukhee Kang, Irvine's mayor, said he is confident about the city's negotiations with the sheriff. The difference between now and years past, Kang said, is the city's amicable relationship with Hutchens, who took over after former Sheriff Mike Carona was ousted under charges of corruption.
"The degree of our discussion has been much more cordial than her predecessor — respectful, constructive," Kang said. "Before, basically our say, our comment, was shut down."
Assistant Sheriff Mike James says that Musick Jail's minimum-security status would be protected forever. Lake Forest Mayor Peter Herzog reiterated that claim, saying Lalloway's contentions about a full-scale prison are unfounded.
Herzog said that some Musick Jail prisoners now are housed in tents and trailers. The expansion would create "a safer jail than what you currently have," he said. "There has never been a hint at a road map toward a maximum security prison."
James acknowledges discussions the possibility of a "booking loop," the term used to describe the registration process for prisoners being booked at the jail.
If the booking loop is added to Musick Jail, high-level offenders would be housed there, James said. But, he added, "They could be booked there, and we could get them moved within a week."
The booking loop is one reason Lalloway isn't convinced that the sheriff or her successors won't one day turn Musick Jail into a prison for more dangerous inmates. He is also suspicious of what he says are the sheriff's vague definitions of what constitutes a low-level offender.
Lalloway attended last week's Board of Supervisors meeting to declare that potentially violent criminals would eventually be housed at the jail.
"We in Irvine are proud to call Irvine America's safest city," Lalloway said at the meeting. "Dramatically increasing the size of the county jail is not acceptable for many residents."