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What are people being jailed for the most in Orange County? Are more people being jailed for assaults? Or drug possession?

If you want to find out, it’ll cost you.

Sheriff officials want to charge at least $1,000 to find out what people were jailed for in recent years.

Voice of OC is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan and nonprofit organization built to be a real-time check on local government. Our work is dependent on open meetings and public records. During Sunshine Week we celebrate being called the “Noise of OC” for making abundant public records requests. While we encourage civic engagement year-round, this week we are offering extra guides on how to follow and participate in local quality of life debates. LEARN MORE»

That price tag came in response to a California Public Records Act request from Voice of OC last month, seeking data on how many people were jailed for each type of criminal charge, and how many days were spent behind bars for each type of criminal charge.

“Total cost to you for computer programming to extract some of the data you are requesting will be at a rate of $100.00 per hour for a minimum of ten (10) hours,” sheriff officials wrote.

Those kinds of costs block much of the public from being able to access records they’re legally entitled to obtain, says David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit group focused on the public’s right to know.

“Fees like this can really be a barrier to public access,” Snyder said.

“Most people don’t have a lot of disposable income to spend on getting access to records that are theirs under the law.”

Sheriff officials haven’t asked for funds to make all public records data available to the public at no cost. Such a request would go to county CEO Frank Kim’s office, for an ultimate decision by county supervisors.

One of those supervisors is interested in knowing what it would cost.

“I’d be curious on an annual basis what the budget request would be for that amount,” Supervisor Doug Chaffee told Voice of OC in an interview Monday. He was the only supervisor to return calls for comment.

“There certainly is a challenge when there are fees that are that high,” he added. “I generally like to support public access.”

Sheriff officials say they’re committed to transparency and that they fully comply with the law.

“[Public Records Act] requests are fulfilled at no cost to the requester if the Department is able to produce it without any cost incurred.  We have full-time staff that process [public records] requests to fulfill them within the given deadlines,” sheriff spokeswoman Carrie Braun said in a statement responding to Voice of OC’s questions.

“In some cases, the information being requested may be contained in a database, but it takes special programming by IT contractors to extract it on a report.  It is not readily available for the [public records] unit to provide,” she added.

The costs charged to the public are not for the sheriff’s staff costs, but are rather a pass-through cost for special programming to extract data, Braun wrote.

“The Sheriff’s Department has not requested any special funding from the [Board of Supervisors] to provide all special report requests at no cost to the requestor,” she added in response to a question.

The law allows officials to charge for custom programming to extract data, Snyder said, but they don’t have to.

“The Public Records Act and the California Constitution require agencies to interpret the law in a way that favors access,” he said.

“Where it comes to cost, they should be very reluctant to charge fees of this nature. I understand and respect the fact that sometimes it may cost agencies to put together records…But I would always encourage agencies to not pass those costs off to the public, as much as possible.”

He also wonders if such inmate data has already been compiled by the department.

“What I wonder here is whether it’s really never the case that they’ve compiled this information in the past,” Snyder said.

“Don’t they have this information compiled in a way to provide to you without [having] to take extraordinary steps?”

Two weeks ago, Voice of OC asked sheriff officials if they already have reports on what charges are most common in the jail. 

That’s when the records division stopped returning messages.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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