Analyst: Calif. jails watchdog needs major overhaul

A review found local jails lack authority, don't have clear goals and need to diversify their leadership

By Jason Pohl
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California board that oversees local jails does not have clear goals, lacks authority and needs to diversify its leadership or else it risks continuing the allow inhumane conditions in county lockups statewide, a nonpartisan review has found.

Because of its ambiguous mission, the Board of State and Community Corrections too often defers to people from law enforcement backgrounds instead of those with medical expertise on mental health or substance use disorders — conditions disproportionately found in county jails, the Legislative Analyst's Office found.

At the same time, California lawmakers have not given the corrections board enforcement power and failed to set clear expectations, undermining the Legislature's ability to know what the corrections board is accomplishing at all. "This includes whether the program is appropriately structured and resourced or should even continue to exist," the analyst's office wrote in its report.

The report echoes much of what a 2019 Sacramento Bee and ProPublica investigation revealed about the jail oversight board's inability to enforce its own rules.

Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged last year to improve how county lockups are inspected, strengthen health standards and hold sheriffs accountable when they break the rules. He said he wanted the board to "step things up."

"I need to see some accountability," Newsom said.

But the corrections board's hands are largely tied. Legally, its inspectors cannot financially penalize facilities that blatantly break the rules, nor can they shut a jail down. At best, they document violations, encourage sheriffs to fix problems, and file jargon-filled, nearly indecipherable reports to lawmakers.

The corrections board's own representatives have admitted they're not an enforcement agency, their mission is often muddled and they needed lawmakers to give them greater direction.

For a moment last year, it seemed that was in the works. Then the pandemic hit.

The coronavirus infected thousands of people locked in county jails. Sheriffs, who run the jails, blocked visitation. Lockups, where populations plummeted, soon saw the cells fill again, with many jails warehousing state inmates who prison officials wouldn't accept amid fears of causing an outbreak.

Because of the pandemic, board inspectors who Newsom asked more of instead scuttled in-person jail walk-throughs entirely. The corrections board couldn't compel sheriffs to report cases of COVID-19 among inmates — a striking example of its lack of authority.

Lack of mission for jails oversight board

But calls for stricter jail oversight have intensified in recent board meetings from both advocates and officials alike. The corrections board is facing a moment of reckoning nearly a decade after its creation.

Depending on how the Legislature acts on the call for reforms, changes could be on the horizon for the board that oversees county jails holding 60,000-plus inmates on any given day — most of them legally innocent.

"Having a clear mission and goals would help assess whether the program is consistent with the Legislature's priorities," said Caitlin O'Neil, a senior fiscal and policy analyst who co-authored the report. "It would help ground the conversation."

The corrections board went to work almost immediately after Newsom called for changes last year, approving plans in March for an "enhanced inspection" process.

The work-in-progress would speed up how quickly sheriffs were put on notice about violations. It could also bring sheriffs before the board to explain why, for instance, they continued to force people with mental illness to sleep on yoga mats while on suicide watch.

Officials held listening sessions a year ago to get feedback about the changes. The first was on March 10, the night before the NBA suspended its season and the country came to understand the gravity of what was happening.

In-person jail inspections were canceled, too.

Inspection visits are carefully planned

Through summer, officials with the corrections board reviewed written policies at jails across the state and conducted inspections from afar. Advocates decried the glacial pace of change.

Newsom called for improvements to the rules which critics have long panned as being barest of bare minimums. They allow people to be locked in prolonged isolation indefinitely and have only modest requirements for mental health treatment.

The revision process sputtered during the past year as committee meetings migrated to Zoom and members retired or took different jobs. "The pandemic has been hard on this process," said Tracie Cone, a corrections board spokeswoman.

Regarding inspections, dozens of people have called on the board to conduct unannounced visits rather than carefully orchestrated tours. Surprise inspections are common in other industries, from nursing homes to restaurants. Advocates wanted something similar.

The board compiled a 101-page assessment of the listening session notes. It also rolled out part of the new inspection process earlier this month during an at-times contentious meeting about the group's mission — or lack thereof.

"I just don't even see the purpose of what we do if it's announced and what is stopping us from making unannounced inspections," said Scott Budnick, a board member and justice reform advocate. Then he got at the heart of the question so many have asked for months: "Are we their friends, or are we the inspectors?"

Linda Penner, the chair of the board who once ran Fresno County's juvenile hall, said she didn't know about the feasibility of unannounced visits. But in that meeting five days before the LAO report came out, she said she had been in "repeated conversations" with Newsom's office discussing the jail oversight and "what would have to change" to enact reforms.

"We don't operate in a vacuum," she said. "We don't listen just because we plan on doing nothing."

She didn't elaborate. In a prepared statement after the report came out, she said she was "pleased with the progress" from the past year and welcomed the LAO's input.

A spokesperson for Newsom's office declined to comment.


(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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