Calif. moves to hire more inspectors for troubled county jails

Oversight board officials have also asked for legal authority to conduct surprise inspections

By Jason Pohl
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO — California is moving to strengthen its power over how county sheriffs are running their local jails, amid a national debate over accountability for law enforcement and ending 'inhumane' conditions in lockups around the state.

Officials with the Board of State and Community Corrections, the state's jail oversight agency that has been accused of weak oversight of the state's 56 counties with jails, this week asked the state Legislature for an additional $3.1 million to pay for 14 new positions, including eight more field inspectors — more than double the existing number on staff.

They also unveiled an enhanced oversight program that calls for jail walk-throughs annually instead of every other year, and they would make information about their visits more timely and accessible to the public. The board's new inspections could also bring sheriffs before state officials when they fail to correct violations.

Fresno County Jail has been the subject of increased state scrutiny in recent years. No other county in California has seen a sharper increase in overall inmate deaths than Fresno.
Fresno County Jail has been the subject of increased state scrutiny in recent years. No other county in California has seen a sharper increase in overall inmate deaths than Fresno. (Silvia Flores/Fresno Bee/TNS)

And board officials have asked lawmakers to grant them clear legal authority to show up unannounced at jails for surprise inspections — a significant request that follows years of demands from justice reform advocates and, increasingly, the board's own members.

"We actually believe it's very responsive to what we've been directed to do to strengthen the jail oversight," Kathleen Howard, the board's executive director, said of the proposals during Monday's budget subcommittee hearing.

Depending on how the Legislature acts in the coming months, changes could be on the horizon for county jails holding 60,000-plus people in custody on any given day — most of them legally innocent.

But they are far from guaranteed.

After a brief discussion, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, tabled the proposal and said lawmakers needed more information about other meaningful changes in the works.

In March, she and others signaled they were open to restructuring the board. They have been considering whether and how it could be given more teeth as an enforcement agency, though it's unclear what final changes might look like.

Garcia's comment echoed the views of social justice advocates around the state, including those in Sacramento, who have been pressing local officials to transform the entire justice system rather than continue old practices. It's part of a movement, dubbed by some as "defund the police," that focuses on how taxpayer dollars are spent throughout the system.

"I'm not convinced that we are in the pathway yet for that comprehensive reform to make sure that we have that oversight, and that business-as-usual is not going to continue," Garcia said. "And so I look forward to the continued discussions."

Reforms follow series of scathing reports

The changes to the way the board operates have been in the works for more than a year.

Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020 called for greater accountability and transparency of the jail oversight board after a Sacramento Bee and ProPublica investigation detailed how the board and its inspectors were powerless to enforce their own rules at the expense of people locked inside.

Last year, the board put together an "enhanced inspection process" that could bring sheriffs before the board to explain any problems documented by its surveyors.

Meanwhile, two reports in recent months have highlighted additional shortcomings.

One review in March from the California State Auditor said the board failed to adequately oversee billions of dollars sent counties to carry out public safety realignment, improve jails and rehabilitate offenders.

Another report from the Legislative Analyst's Office in February said the board does not have clear goals, lacks authority and needs to diversify its leadership or else it risks continuing to allow inhumane conditions in county lockups statewide.

'Unnecessary or premature without deeper reforms'

Advocates celebrated the potential for unannounced inspections in county jails, but criticized a plan to send more money to what they view as a fundamentally flawed agency with weak rules.

Renee Menart, a policy analyst with the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said the proposed changes were "unnecessary or premature without deeper reforms."

"Ongoing problems at the agency are caused by structural deficiencies, including unclear oversight goals and problematic leadership," Menart said.

Menart cited the disproportionate number of people on the board with law enforcement affiliations.

The Board of State and Community Corrections is composed of two distinct groups. The career staff includes inspectors, analysts and others who do day-to-day work compiling data on local justice systems, clearing paperwork for grant programs and providing "technical assistance" to counties they oversee.

A second, more public group of 13 members makes decisions about what trajectory the board should take on everything from jail oversight to millions of dollars in grant and other funding. The majority of the board has some law enforcement affiliation, including from California's prisons, probation offices and sheriff's offices that run local jails the board as a whole is tasked with overseeing.

"The BSCC," Menart said, "needs to be independent of the agencies that they oversee before the state bolsters their spending or staffing."
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