San Diego lawmakers request state audit of county jail deaths

San Diego County jails have the highest mortality and suicide rates among California's six largest jail systems


By Jeff McDonald, Kelly Davis
The San Diego Union-Tribune      

SAN DIEGO — Six state lawmakers from San Diego County have asked the state auditor to investigate years of deaths inside local jails, which have recorded the highest mortality rate among California's largest counties.

The request, which came after the Democratic party of San Diego County voted to seek the independent review, asks the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to direct auditors to examine deaths among people in the San Diego Sheriff's department custody dating back 15 years.

"Specifically, we'd like to know why so many inmates have died while in the Department's custody and what steps are being taken to ensure proper protocol," the legislators wrote.

Sheriff deputies check on an inmate returning from his court appearance. Additional safety measure were added to the San Diego Central Jail to prevent inmates from attempting suicide by jumping off the second level of the Enhance observation unit.
Sheriff deputies check on an inmate returning from his court appearance. Additional safety measure were added to the San Diego Central Jail to prevent inmates from attempting suicide by jumping off the second level of the Enhance observation unit. (Nelvin C. Cepeda)

The three-page letter was co-signed by Senate President Toni Atkins and Assembly members Brian Maienschein, Lorena Gonzalez, Akilah Weber, Chris Ward and Tasha Boerner-Horvath, all Democrats.

Sen. Ben Hueso of San Diego is the only local state Democrat to have not signed the request letter; his staff said last month that he supports the audit.

The lawmakers want state auditors to delve into a number of issues, including what the Sheriff's Department has done to mitigate inmate deaths, whether minority groups are overrepresented in fatalities, and how much the county has paid to resolve legal complaints related to deaths.

"There is an extensive public record documenting the tragic loss of lives, systemic failures and inadequacy of oversight," the letter states. "... The grim history shows no sign of waning."

The Sheriff's Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman last month said the department is always working to improve services and welcomes any review of its practices.

The lawmakers also want state auditors to review practices and budgeting at the Citizens' Law Enforcement Review Board, the volunteer panel that provides civilian oversight of the county Sheriff's and Probation departments.

Paul Parker, the review board's executive officer, said Friday that the panel supports a state audit and noted the board agreed earlier this year to hire an outside expert to study in-custody deaths in San Diego County jails.

"CLERB will continue forward with its own independent analysis and supports all similar analyses of (Sheriff's Department) facilities," Parker said by email.

The letter cites The San Diego Union-Tribune's "Dying Behind Bars" investigation published in 2019 as an impetus for requesting the audit. The multi-part series found that San Diego County jails have the highest mortality and suicide rates among California's six largest jail systems.

Many of the 150-plus people who died in custody since 2009 — the year Bill Gore was appointed sheriff — could have survived through better suicide-prevention practices and more diligent health care given to inmates suffering from chronic illnesses, including serious mental health issues, the report found.

The six-month Union-Tribune investigation also found that lawsuits stemming from many of the deaths have cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal settlements in recent years.

The request to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee also references an investigation by Disability Rights California completed in 2018 that looked at the 17 suicides that occurred in San Diego County jails between 2014 and 2016, which "far outpaced other large California county jail systems."

The Sheriff's Department has maintained that both the Union-Tribune and Disability Rights California relied on a flawed methodology — the same standard used by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics for reports on mortality in jails and prisons — to measure its jails suicide rate.

Department officials hired their own expert, who wrote a report concluding that suicides in San Diego County jails were not disproportionate with those in other California counties.

The request to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee will be considered when the panel next convenes, likely in June or July. Any findings and recommendations would be released later this year or in 2022.

In the 2019-2020 legislative session, the state audit committee approved 32 of 34 audit requests received, the committee website says. Once the committee approves requests, the reviews take approximately six months to complete.

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