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Why We Need Oversight of the Sheriff Office

Conditions at Santa Rita, the county jail, have deteriorated. It has one of the highest rates of deaths while in custody in the state. Most inmates are in jail pre-trial, and thus presumed innocent! New State law gives our County Board of Supervisors (BOS) the opportunity to create a citizen oversight commission of the Sheriff Office, which is responsible for jail conditions. Here’s our interview with LWVO Board Member Jody Nunez, who recently retired after 32 years as an Alameda County Public Defender. She is helping to structure the new commission and is in an excellent position to talk about why this development is so important.

Why is this such an important development?

As an Alameda County Public Defender, I spent a lot of time at Santa Rita visiting my clients and dealing with the many issues they faced during their incarceration. My real time experience dealing with the Sheriff Office in court, in cases and at Santa Rita makes this issue a personal one for me.

The life my clients experienced at Santa Rita was horrifying, including spending all day locked in their cells, often for 23 hours a day. Many never got to go outside, ever, during their time in custody. They suffered with terrible food, poor medical and mental health care, difficulty with visitations, expensive costs for phone calls to family, friends and legal counsel, lack of access to services and mistreatment by Sheriff deputies.

I believe the need for a strong, independent oversight commission is long overdue. For too many years the Sheriff has operated with the support of the Board of Supervisors but without any transparency. I am honored to play a small part in making sure whatever commission is established is well thought through and properly structured.

Why is oversight of the County Sheriff important to the voting public?

Money! Current and past litigation over conditions and officer malfeasance is costly to taxpayers. For example, currently pending is Babu v. County of Alameda, a suit for over $300 million in damages challenging the jail’s treatment of people with mental disabilities, including the practice of locking people in isolation for long periods of time. A federal court recently approved a settlement that places Santa Rita under court supervision for at least six years. The $100 million agreement will increase mental health staffing, treatment, special cells and increase funding for Sheriff personnel. Many families of incarcerated individuals and community-based organizations objected to the terms of the settlement as it failed to address many of the access to services needs of those incarcerated in Santa Rita in favor of putting more money in the sheriff’s pocket for salaries.

The Babu litigation is just the latest in many lawsuits filed against Sheriff Ahern regarding his running of Santa Rita jail. Since Ahern has been Sheriff, the number of inmate deaths has increased dramatically. The county has seen an enormous increase of incarcerated folks who are dealing with mental health crises and issues. Litigation is the most expensive way to handle issues that could be addressed with true oversight and intervention. If there was true oversight, where complaints from those incarcerated and their families were investigated and properly addressed, the need for court intervention would be diminished and costs related to such litigation would be limited and/or reduced.

The BOS has been unable to provide the necessary oversight to prevent the deterioration of the jail and to make sure those who are incarcerated are not mistreated and have access to services that will reduce recidivism.

Because the Sheriff is an elected position, and in Alameda County the elected sheriff has run unopposed for decades, there is little incentive to reign in the almost $500 million dollar budget. Any one agency that has a budget of this size should be accountable to the public in a transparent way—so the voters understand where their money is going.

Is it correct that many people in the Sheriff’s custody are there for pre-trial detention, that is, no decision has been made about their guilt or innocence?

85% of the population at Santa Rita jail are in what is called pre-trial detention, meaning they have not been found guilty or entered into a plea agreement. Since 2014, 56 people have died while housed in Santa Rita – most of them still in pre-trial detention. That means they haven’t been found guilty of any crime and remained in custody pending resolution of their cases. These numbers alone warrant setting up an independent oversight commission.

From the perspective of our County Supervisors, what are some of the pros and cons to creating a citizen oversight group?

Pros: Improved public relations, especially in high profile situations, reduction in outside litigation costs, increased public awareness of Sheriff Office procedures, and general transparency. All these factors should lead to improved relationships with the public and community based organizations.

Cons: Commission can lack independence if not structured properly, could be seen as an interference if the Commission has too much independence, loss of internal oversight power, inability to investigate many cases if not well staffed, cost to fund the commission.

How much time do the Supervisors have to act?

There is no legally imposed timeline, but the BOS Public Protection Committee appointed Wendy Still, retired Alameda County Probation Chief, to address citizen oversight. Her goal is to have her recommendations ready to present to the Public Protection Committee and then to the full BOS by March. She is currently conducting focus groups and interviews with formerly incarcerated folks, people with experience on oversight of law enforcement bodies and others. She has been open to input from the League and a coalition of community-based organizations under the umbrella of Faith in Action. She has held a series of community engagement meetings for each of the Supervisor districts and invited NACOLE, a non-profit that works to enhance accountability and transparency in policing and build community trust through civilian oversight, to speak at one of the meetings. The League and Faith in Action will meet with Ms. Still to discuss a draft oversight statute in response to the one proposed by County Counsel, and to present our suggested recommendations for the structure of the commission.


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