Reform-inspired jail oversight, building plan approved in Santa Clara County

Robert Salonga| San Jose Mercury News| Link to Article

 This conceptual illustration depicts how a new addition to the Santa Clara County jail – shown in orange – might look if constructed as proposed adjacent to the current jail structure. (Courtesy County of Santa Clara)

This conceptual illustration depicts how a new addition to the Santa Clara County jail – shown in orange – might look if constructed as proposed adjacent to the current jail structure. (Courtesy County of Santa Clara)

SAN JOSE — The memory of Michael Tyree, a mentally ill Santa Clara County inmate infamously murdered at the hands of correctional deputies three years ago, permeated two pivotal jail reforms that hurtled toward reality Tuesday.

In what one official described as a “milestone,” the Board of Supervisors moved forward with the creation of a county Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring, along with an accompanying community advisory committee.

The office would be headed by an independently contracted director or firm, 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, and offering policy analysis and recommendations.

The monitor would report directly to the board. In the next 30 days, county staff will present an ordinance to formally create the position, and a search process is set to be launched shortly after.

“Today is a significant milestone for the people of Santa Clara County,” Supervisor Cindy Chavez said. “We’re adding another layer of transparency to our jails and Sheriff’s Office. It is incredibly important to maintaining a safe county that the jail function at its optimal level.”

The decision aligns with a key recommendation from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Improving Custody Operations, which was convened in the wake of Tyree’s death in 2015, and on which Chavez served.

Sheriff Laurie Smith, who has supported independent civilian oversight, said the discussions around improving the criminal justice system “have been robust and fruitful.”

“I continue to support additional participation and input to ensure we are doing all we can to provide a custody environment that is safe for our custody deputies, medical staff, inmates and visitors,” she said. “By evaluating the system of oversight and making any changes to improve it and ensure the intent of this effort is met makes sense.”

Once the monitor is selected — with the help of community input in vetting three finalists — that person or firm will be granted a six-month period to gather feedback from stakeholders to evaluate the monitor structure. Within a year, a community advisory committee will be formed.

Several community activists and inmate advocates lauded the oversight development. Jose Valle, a community organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug, said a monitor fills a void of inmate grievances he contends are not effectively addressed.

“We still have a lot of work (to do) and we definitely need oversight,” he said.

Barbara Hansen, a board member of the faith-based civil-rights coalition People Acting in Community Together, similarly applauded the supervisors’ action but voiced concern about a delay between the appointment of a monitor and the selection of the community advisers.

“This committee should be formed as soon as possible,” Hansen said. “We need to be heard from the very beginning.”

In other jail news, a revised plan to construct a new custody facility next to the Main Jail on Hedding Street includes a renewed focus on accommodating mentally ill people, is designed to reduce isolation, and integrates transitional services so that inmates are better equipped to stay out of jail after they’re released.

The new jail plan, also approved by a 5-0 vote, expands the proposed seven-story building from 219,000 to 243,000 square feet and moves its footprint to the current location of the Main Jail South, which will be torn down.

But the expansion won’t translate to more inmate capacity, with the proposed bed count being slashed from 815 to 535. Much of that reduction will come by way of eliminating general-population inmates from the new facility, so that it primarily hosts inmates receiving mental-health treatment and classroom programming for lower-level offenders.

“It provides a stronger focus on preparing folks for a successful release,” said Ron Hansen, a PACT leader.

There would also be onsite medical capabilities to reduce the need to shuttle inmates back and forth to Valley Medical Center, which has posed serious security risks in the past.

What has also happened in the year since the first building proposal was presented is a resetting of jail priorities locally and throughout the state, particularly on turning away from incarceration as a reflexive response to nonviolent crimes.

“I believe we’re headed in the right direction with the design of the new jail,” Supervisor Ken Yeager said. “It reflects where the board is on so many different items, as we’ve talked about jail reform, and bail reform, and more mental health services.”

Yeager added that the onsite re-entry services increase the chances someone will take advantage of the resources available to them upon their release, as opposed to leaving them on their own.

“You’re able to integrate them a little earlier, and hopefully they understand what services are available,” he said, “and are more apt to use it and to benefit from it.”

According to figures presented Tuesday, the county inmate population decreased from 3,547 in December 2016 to 3,150 a year later, an 11 percent drop. And with more low-level inmates being directed to the medium-security Elmwood jail complex in Milpitas, along with a rise in sentences involving jail-diversion programs rather than physical custody, county officials expect that decrease to continue.

But that downward trajectory was challenged by retired Undersheriff John Hirokawa, the county’s previous chief of corrections who is vying to unseat Smith in this year’s sheriff election. He criticized the loss of capacity, saying it restricts the county’s latitude with accommodating special needs.

“Losing these beds reduces our flexibility to address specific needs for all inmates, including female and LGBTQ inmates,” Hirokawa said.

That sentiment was echoed by Shaunn Cartwright, co-founder of the civil-rights group Rise up for Justice. She voiced wariness about inattention to the needs of female inmates in the new jail plan.

“Where we need to do the most improvements is with the services and facilities that women have,” Cartwright said. “If you’re a woman at the jail and you have mental-health needs or you’re pregnant, you’re either at the hospital or you’re suffering.”

The projected cost increase is $14 million, or 6 percent, to $337 million, a quarter of which will be paid for by state bonds. The completion deadline has also been pushed back three years, from Spring 2020 to Spring 2023.