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California Governor’s Budget Makes Stronger Jail Oversight a Priority

After an investigation by McClatchy and ProPublica, Gov. Gavin Newsom submitted a budget that would give more authority to the board that oversees jails.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks about his proposed 2020-2021 state budget during a news conference in Sacramento on Friday. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

This article was produced in partnership with The Sacramento Bee, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

This story is part of an ongoing investigation into the crisis in California’s jails. Sign up for the Overcorrection newsletter to receive updates in this series as soon as they publish.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday demanded more accountability from his state community corrections board and called for more frequent jail inspections, tighter oversight and stricter standards for how sheriffs run local lockups.

His calls followed a yearlong McClatchy and ProPublica investigation into county jails that showed that there are no limits on how long sheriffs can hold mentally ill inmates in extreme isolation, that violence goes unchecked in many lockups and that state inspectors are powerless to enforce their own standards.

Newsom in his 2020 budget proposal said he wanted to “strengthen the state’s oversight of county jails.” His plan calls for the state board that oversees jails, the Board of State and Community Corrections, to take more aggressive and transparent steps when its inspectors find conditions that violate state standards.

“I’ve got a board that’s responsibility is oversight. I want to see them step things up,” Newsom said Friday. “They do a lot of investigating. The follow-up, I’m not satisfied … I need to see some accountability.”

The BSCC was created to help oversee changes brought on by 2011’s prison realignment, which diverted some offenders from overcrowded state prisons to county jails instead.

Newsom said inspectors’ follow-up after they find violations must improve, and the state board would provide extra help to counties where failures are found.

He demanded minimum standards be brought in line with stricter national best practices.

Overhauling what are called Title 15 standards was a welcome and ambitious goal, said Margot Mendelson, an attorney with the Berkeley, California-based Prison Law Office, which sued the state’s prisons and spurred the realignment effort.

That’s because current standards are “egregiously inadequate,” Mendelson said, specifically citing jails’ use of solitary confinement.

In a written statement Friday, the BSCC said that it was changing its inspection process “to hold local agencies accountable” and that it was considering other improvements to the jail inspection process. Additional details are expected when the board meets in February.

Newsom’s comments on Friday echo those in recent months from state lawmakers, who have increasingly called for accountability, recommended audits of how sheriffs have spent billions of dollars in state support and considered hearings to examine the deadly conditions in some jails.

Lawmakers, including Assembly Member Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, have said they planned to renew efforts for sheriffs accountability and oversight. It was not immediately clear Friday when new legislation might be introduced or what changes exactly it might call for.

Since realignment, the state has allocated some $8 billion to counties to improve services inside and outside of jails. It awarded an additional $2 billion for the construction of new facilities. And it converted an arm of prison bureaucracy into a jail oversight agency that sets minimum standards and inspects the jails.

Newsom’s calls for change came after he worked last year with the Democrat-controlled Legislature to make changes to the criminal justice system, signing legislation that tightens police use-of-force standards, issuing an executive order placing a moratorium on the death penalty and moving toward abolishing private prisons.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

A bill that would have allowed counties to create oversight groups with subpoena power over county sheriffs was shelved last year after opposition from local law enforcement. The California State Sheriffs’ Association, which wields significant influence on public safety legislation, called that measure “unnecessary.”

Cory Salzillo, a lobbyist and spokesman with the sheriff’s group, said it was reviewing the proposal announced Friday.

Newsom’s full budget proposal now kicks off months of negotiations with lawmakers. They must pass a budget deal by June 15, in time for the start of the next fiscal year in July.

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