A Montgomery County grand jury released a critical report yesterday recommending that county officials delay construction of an $88 million jail, contending that decisions to build the facility "were made in the dark."

The grand jury's report followed an eight-month investigation of the county's severely crowded Detention Center in Rockville. "We learned that planning was absent, and decision-making was made in crisis," the report stated. "The process of decision by 'knee jerk' reaction must change."

The report, which recommended court hearings and alternative release programs for jailed suspects as a way to ease crowding, set off a new round of political sparring about the controversial new jail facility.

"The need {for the new jail} is crystal clear," said County Executive Sidney Kramer. Kramer, who recently selected a 297-acre site in Clarksburg for the jail, said the project has been extensively researched and reviewed by various county and state offices. "I have absolutely no doubt about the project," he said.

During the past three years, the Rockville Detention Center, designed to hold about 300 inmates, has held as many as 800. Yesterday, 626 inmates were housed in the jail, county officials said.

Kramer accused his political adversary, State's Attorney Andrew Sonner, who opposes the new jail facility, of undue influence on the grand jury investigation. "I suspect that Mr. Sonner gave one-sided advice to the grand jury and I'm a little disappointed that Sonner showed his bias in such an effort."

But Sonner said yesterday the grand jury "started off with a fresh slate" in its probe of the county Detention Center. Sonner, a strong advocate for alternative release programs, said the grand jury report supports his claims that more study is needed before a second county jail is built.

"It is abundantly clear that for us to build a $100 million jail that would take several prime acres of land in Montgomery County and hire 400 more public employees . . . would be a monumental mistake," Sonner said.

The County Council is scheduled to review preliminary design plans next month for the jail, and member Bruce Adams said the council has also run into problems obtaining additional information.

"The council is looking for the same type of data as the grand jury," Adams said. "We won't sign off on the project until we get that information."

But Adams said he's convinced the jail must be built. "We have people sleeping on the floor in the gym," Adams said. "It's a bad situation over there. It's our obligation to find an appropriate facility in the future."

The report's findings were presented at a news conference yesterday by a three-member subcommittee of the 23-member grand jury. Grand jury foreman Barbara Gibian said the panel, which toured the jail and interviewed more than a dozen county officials, was "really surprised" by the lack of basic data and coordination in the county's criminal justice system.

Robert Coyne, director of the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, a clearinghouse for the judicial system, acknowledged "a lot of critical information is not around."

Instead of building a new jail, the grand jury recommended that the county establish a pretrial services program, speed up initial court hearings on misdemeanors, and reduce the number of "no-shows" by defendants through increased monitoring. The county recently has initiated several alternative release programs, including an electronic home monitoring program and will launch a $500,000 state-funded pretrial release program this fall.