It's called Measure J. J as in "Jail."

The Nov. 6 bond issue deserves an overwhelming endorsement from Calaveras County voters. It is the best, cheapest and fastest way to build the new jail that the community has sorely needed for decades.

The logic is simple: If you want crooks to stay in jail, vote yes. If you want the sheriff to keep putting criminals back on the street because there's no room in the county's cramped and outdated lockup, vote no.

But first remember to go to the polls. Because, chances are, many voters up and down the state won't.

Next Tuesday's election, in fact, borders on the invisible.

Overwhelmed as we are by Democratic and Republican presidential candidates jockeying for position as next year's caucuses and primary elections approach, the fact that Californians will go to the polls a week from Tuesday has been all but forgotten.

Historically, the school and special district races that populate off-year election ballots aren't much of a draw. Turnouts are typically abysmal, hovering in the 20 percent range.

Measure J, a countywide $31 million bond issue requiring a two-thirds approval margin, deserves better. It is arguably the most important ballot issue to come before Calaveras County voters in years.

Some background:

The present jail was built in 1963, when the county had a population of only 12,000. Since then, the population has grown by 300 percent to 48,000, but jail capacity has risen only 38 percent from 47 to 65.

The result? Criminals and suspects, that by law, should be behind bars are being released by the hundreds because there is no room at the inn. Last year, 1,800 were released early or simply turned away for a lack of cell space.

Many who had been convicted and sentenced in court escaped without serving an hour. The notion of jail as a deterrent became a joke.

Meanwhile, the more serious criminals that do end up in jail are packed like sardines in a cramped, crowded and outdated building.

Although it has been worsening, the problem is hardly new. For nearly a decade Calaveras County grand juries have been urging action. "Our jail is the weakest link in the county's law enforcement infrastructure," 2005-06 grand jurors found.

Action came earlier this year, with an unlikely but potentially lucrative partnership with the state. Under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's $11 billion jail and prison expansion program, Calaveras County would get a 3-to-1 state-fund match for jail construction.

Here's how Measure J bond proceeds would be spent:

? $10 million, matched by $30 million in state funds, would pay for a new, 240-bed jail, on or near, the County Government Center in San Andreas.

? $6 million would go toward jail infrastructure not covered by state cash.

? $15 million would pay for a new operations and 911 dispatch center.

As proposed, the 30-year bond issue would require an average annual levy of $18 per $100,000 of assessed valuation to repay. If Measure J passes, said Sheriff Dennis Downum, the new jail and command center could be complete by 2010 will meet county needs for at least 20 years.

Because the bond issue has no organized opposition, the campaign has been relatively quiet. Perhaps the most effective Yes-on-J strategy have been free and convincing citizen tours of the woefully inadequate jail. The least effective was a midterm 2007-08 Grand Jury ordered up by Downum: it included little new information and was a transparent political ploy.

Still, J richly deserves to pass.

Like their largely conservative constituents, Calaveras County supervisors have traditionally been reluctant about the imposition of new taxes. But because public safety is at stake, the board in July voted unanimously to put the bond issue before voters.

Now it is the public's turn to do the right thing: Vote yes on Measure J.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.