Citing transparency, Santa Clara County supervisor to bring jail oversight plan to board

Eric Kurhi| San Jose Mercury News| Link to Article

SAN JOSE — More than two years after three guards beat an inmate to death in the Santa Clara County jail — and after scores of meetings on how to best reform the conditions that made it possible to happen — a proposal to create a civilian oversight panel is scheduled to go before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The item is being brought forth by Supervisor Joe Simitian as a means to give the public and the rest of the supervisors an early look at a rough draft — the budding policy is being developed by a committee he helms but he stressed a need for transparency.

“I felt that this issue has not really been highlighted before the full board,” he said, “and frankly it is an issue of enough importance that we want the full board, and the community, engaged at the start of the next part of the process.”

There are two components to the oversight model: One is an independent director who would report to the board of supervisors, the other a citizen watchdog panel that would operate in an advisory capacity. After two meetings during which representatives from various oversight bodies around the United States and beyond presented on their practices, the model the committee is recommending is closest to one used in Los Angeles.

“L.A. was widely held up as a model for good governance,” Simitian said. “And the other benefit is it exists within the framework of California law. It made sense to look and see what can we do that has already been road-tested.”

Ron Hansen of People Acting in Community Together — a jail advocacy group that has been very vocal at meetings on reforms — said “Generally, the proposal is a strong start.”

However, he said a key difference that may need to be addressed is that Los Angeles includes some crucial jail services such as health programs — both physical and mental — and facilities services within the sheriff’s office. Locally, those programs are outside of the Santa Clara County sheriff’s office.

“Consequently, oversight of these important services should be made explicit in the proposal,” Hansen said, “especially since these areas have been the focus of the majority of inmate complaints and grievances.”

The proposal to create an Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Oversight is in line with a key recommendation from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Improving Custody Operations, which was convened in the wake of mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree’s murder in 2015. In June, former jail guards Jereh Lubrin, Matthew Farris and Rafael Rodriguez were convicted of second-degree murder.

It was one of two top recommendations by the commission. In addition to civilian oversight, the commission said leadership of the facilities must be addressed — going as far as to say the county should seize control of the jails from Sheriff Laurie Smith. There were about 620 more recommendations.

Sheriff Smith made independent civilian oversight a priority in her own list of proposed changes in March 2016 — just before the Blue Ribbon Commission announced its findings. Smith’s other stated goals included beefing up training to help guards cope with mentally ill inmates, improving inmate education programs, and increasing minimum qualifications and background checks for prospective guards.

“Transformative change continues to occur throughout our custody facilities with the goal of ensuring a more holistic approach toward how we, as a law enforcement entity, safely and humanely manage inmates,” she said Thursday. “We look forward to our collaboration with county stakeholders on this important step.”

Smith last year proposed sweeping changes to slash the use of excessive force and improve medical care in Santa Clara County’s troubled jails that go far beyond most counties, including the appointment of a civilian board and inspector general to provide permanent independent oversight.

However, former undersheriff and head of corrections John Hirokawa, who is running to unseat his old boss in 2018, is critical of how much time has passed without additional information.

“This is a deadly serious issue facing our county, but the continued silence over the past 17 months on this topic from Sheriff Laurie Smith is deafening,” he said on Friday. “It’s time for the Sheriff to either exhibit real leadership on this issue or step aside.”

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The Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Oversight would be responsible for keeping an eye on the day-to-day operations of the Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Corrections, as well as auditing and monitoring investigations into complaints. In addition, the office would field complaints, offer policy analysis and recommendations, conduct community outreach and provide mediation, according to Simitian.

The proposal also calls for the creation of a citizens panel to ensure public access, engagement and input to the jail oversight process..

Simitian called the proposal a “first draft.”

“Getting it right takes great care. We have to keep the public safe and protect their due process rights. We have to keep our officers safe and protect their due process rights. And we have to build and maintain the public’s trust in law enforcement, which is in everybody’s interest,” the supervisor said in an interview.

“This is a first draft, not a final draft,” he continued. “This is the basis for discussion.”

Both he and colleague Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who is also on the committee that has been working on the draft, used the words “robust, independent, rigorous and transparent” in describing what they expect to in an oversight model.

“Anything short of that means we’ll have a less just and more costly system, in terms of human life and in tax dollars,” Chavez said, referring to the high cost of recidivism and the importance of getting people rehabilitated to function when they are released.

Former San Jose Independent Police Auditor LaDoris Cordell said she likes what she sees so far.

“My hope is that it will be enacted and this will bring just a new day to the operation of the jails of Santa Clara County,” said Cordell, who also chaired the blue ribbon commission. “This is bold. It’s never happened before.”

Cordell said she believes independent civilian oversight would have saved Tyree’s life and those of other inmates who have died.

“It’s a long time coming and I prefer not to look back now” she said. “I want to look forward to a day when we can be proud of our jails because right now there’s not a lot to be proud of.”