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Record numbers of people have died in California jails. Now lawmakers could crack down

The San Diego Central Jail in downtown San Diego, on Aug. 3, 2023.
Kristian Carreon
The San Diego Central Jail in downtown San Diego, on Aug. 3, 2023.

Locally elected sheriffs manage California jails and are responsible for the safety of the inmates they hold. Record deaths in San Diego’s jail are shaping a plan for new statewide oversight.

Eighteen people died in the San Diego County jail system in 2021, the most in-custody deaths ever recorded there. Local officials expressed consternation. State representatives demanded answers. Calls for change rang out.

The next year, another 18 people died in custody. San Diego County jails, which house an average of 3,800 people per day, are among the state’s deadliest.

So far this year, 11 people have died in San Diego County jails, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

It’s not just San Diego. Six California county jail systems recorded record inmate deaths in 2022, according to California Department of Justice data dating to 2005. Solano County was one of them. Five people died in a system that houses an average of just 500 people per day.

Those numbers are alarming to advocates for incarcerated people and for state lawmakers who have struggled to adopt a statewide response to the deaths. Locally elected sheriffs manage jails, and they report to the county boards of supervisors that set their budgets.

Now a bill written by a powerful legislator from San Diego could upend California’s county jail systems by putting a “detention monitor” in jails to serve as a kind of statewide inspector general. Senate leader Toni Atkins said the bill would force sheriffs to disclose more information to the public about in-custody deaths.

At a hearing on the bill last month, Democrat Atkins said the boards of supervisors are responsible for “settling lawsuits involving in-custody jail deaths, but have limited authority in requiring the Sheriff’s Department to enact policies to reduce in-custody deaths.”

Atkins at the hearing said San Diego County has spent nearly $50 million to settle in-custody death lawsuits in just the last five years.

Her bill has two central features: the detention monitor, and a measure that would grant more public access to in-custody death reports.

California sheriffs fighting new oversight

Predictably the plan has drawn fire from law enforcement groups, who will have until the legislative session ends Sept. 14 to lobby for changes to the bill.

Atkins has already revised the bill to address some criticism. The bill as she originally submitted it would have gone much further by authorizing counties to create their own local departments of corrections, taking jails away from sheriffs. That plan fell apart after lobbying from law enforcement, Atkins said, and “as a sign of good faith” to those groups, she replaced the idea with the monitor to provide “alternative accountability.”

County sheriffs say the current version of the bill would create redundant layers of oversight in a system they say is already sufficiently policed, specifically by an agency called the California Board of State and Community Corrections.

“I think that there’s this misconception that there’s these unruly deaths that are occurring inside our jail facilities,” Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, told CalMatters.

“But the reality of it is, we provide state-of-the-art medical attention, counseling services, social services, mental health services all up and down the state of California that’s required by the state and is also overseen by the Board of State and Community Corrections, right? So this bill really becomes a duplicate of things that really are already in place when we have a death in our jail.”

Boudreaux said jails are unfairly blamed for deaths that would have happened anyway among people with preexisting health conditions. Another problem, he said, was preventing suicides.

“You know, we don’t ever hear the data about those that we prevented from committing suicide in the hundreds,” Boudreaux said. “We’ve caught many, many people (attempting to commit) suicide and help them, many people that came in with medical conditions that they would have never received medical treatment (for) out on the streets, now are receiving medical care inside the jail.

“But the fact of the matter is, people die. And are they dying at the hands of jail staff and sheriff’s offices? No, that’s not what’s occurring.”

One attorney who often takes cases involving in-custody deaths in the Sacramento County jail system doesn’t anticipate the bill having much of an effect.

“I don’t see this streamlining things and producing a flood of, you know, useful information,” said Mark Merin, a Sacramento attorney.

Among the exemptions in the bill are that any refusal to disclose information by the jail can be challenged before a judge who has access to nonpublic information, a process called “in camera review.” That, Merin said, will drag out the disclosure process for months, or longer.

San Diego jail on the hot seat

Advocates argue the record number of deaths in counties like San Diego and Solano is a crisis and maintaining the status quo would be a clear sign that jail inmates’ lives do not matter.

In San Diego, the civilian review board that oversees the jail system has proposed handing over medical care to the county health department. That would strip the responsibility from Sheriff Kelly Martinez.

Martinez refused to speak to CalMatters about the Atkins bill, citing pending litigation.

A report commissioned by that group, the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board in San Diego, found that “elevated risk of death appears to be isolated to the unsentenced jail population.”

Indeed, of the 18 people who died in custody in San Diego County jails in 2022, 17 were awaiting trial.

The exterior of Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana in 2016.
Nick Ut
AP Photo
The exterior of Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana in 2016.

The report commissioned by the civilian review board followed a February 2022 report from the state Auditor’s Office that found due to “the (San Diego) Sheriff’s Department’s inadequate response to deaths, and the lack of effective independent oversight, we believe that the Legislature must take action to ensure that the Sheriff’s Department implements meaningful changes.”

Paul Parker, the civilian review board’s executive director, testified in support of Atkins’ bill. He is trying to push for access to medical reports of in-custody deaths, something he said the civilian oversight board needs to do its job effectively.

“What we’re trying to do is get jurisdiction over the medical and mental health care providers,” Parker said. “We don’t have jurisdiction to look at what they’ve done, we can only look at what the sworn (sheriff’s department employees) have done.

“How the heck am I supposed to look at an in-custody death if I can’t look at the medical and mental health care provided to that person? I’m only getting half the story, right? Because we contend that there are probably issues with the medical and mental health care being provided, either substandard or derelict, in some way, shape or form.”

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.