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We Investigated the Crisis in California’s Jails. Now, the Governor Calls for More Oversight.

Gov. Gavin Newsom wants the state to have more power to scrutinize local jails. This comes after a McClatchy and ProPublica investigation found the agency meant to oversee the jails is toothless and that some jail conditions are inhumane.

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.

Faced with a surge of homicides in some of California’s largest jails, inmates held in inhumane suicide-watch conditions and elected sheriffs who rebuff state inspectors, Gov. Gavin Newsom is crafting plans that would give the state more power to oversee local sheriffs and the lockups they run.

The measure will be part of a broader criminal justice reform package he plans to introduce next year, he told The Fresno Bee editorial board last week. Also on the table: adding “step-down facilities” to bolster rehabilitation and reentry options for people being released from custody and, ultimately, shuttering one of the state’s 35 prisons.

“I’m generally not satisfied with oversight, period. Across the board,” Newsom said, when asked whether he was content with the state’s supervision of county jails that house about 70,000 inmates. Local decision-making fosters “wonderful flexibility” in running governments, providing services and operating local criminal justice systems.

But, he added, there’s “not a lot of accountability and oversight in terms of these issues and county jails.”

He said his administration is studying what could change but did not offer specifics. A spokeswoman declined to offer additional information about the plans. She said Newsom would announce the changes in January when he reveals his state budget proposal.

Newsom’s comments follow a yearlong investigation by McClatchy and ProPublica that exposed how county jails have struggled to handle an influx of inmates serving longer sentences after realignment, the 2011 series of reforms that diverted inmates from the state’s unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons to local facilities.

Lawmakers created the California Board of State and Community Corrections to oversee the increasingly burdened jails and award funding for facility construction, but the news organizations found that the agency is toothless.

The board does not monitor jail deaths, even as inmate-on-inmate homicides have soared in several local lockups. And it cannot force counties to construct new, safer facilities, even after it awards billions of dollars in state financing to help them replace decrepit facilities — projects that become mired in costly delays.

No other county in California has seen a sharper increase in overall inmate deaths than Fresno. In the seven years since realignment began, at least 47 people have died in the county jail, more than twice the number who died in the seven years before the overhaul. Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims has said that the county jails hold many dangerous people, and that awful events, including deaths, are almost inevitable.

Last week, McClatchy and ProPublica published an investigation of Kern County’s extreme use of isolation cells for inmates who deputies put on suicide watch.

An inspector from the state corrections board cited the county last year for violating minimum jail standards when it locked suicidal inmates in closet-sized rooms with nothing but a grate in the floor for bodily fluids and a yoga mat to sleep on. The county’s sheriff, Donny Youngblood, rebuffed the inspector’s findings eight months later. Then his department purchased more mats.

Kern County sheriff’s officials said their jails have used isolation to prevent suicide deaths for decades without criticism.

After McClatchy and ProPublica asked questions about Kern County’s isolation practices and its use of yoga mats, the sheriff’s office replaced the mats with blankets that are resistant to rips.

State corrections officials do not have the authority to make county leaders change, and they generally see themselves as partners, not regulators, said Allison Ganter, deputy director overseeing the inspection team.

“We are not enforcement,” she said.

Positioning himself as a Democratic counterweight to the Trump administration, Newsom has worked with a Democratically-controlled Legislature to press changes to the criminal justice system. This year, the governor signed legislation into law that tightens police use-of-force standards, and he penned an executive order placing a moratorium on the death penalty in the state. He has also moved toward abolishing private prisons.

But challenging local sheriffs could prove more difficult.

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

Cory Salzillo, a lobbyist for the sheriffs, made a similar statement Tuesday when asked about Newsom’s calls for additional oversight. “Sheriffs and jails are already overseen or monitored,” he said, referring specifically to the state corrections board, local elected officials and the courts.

The bill’s author, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, vowed to make another try next year, citing the McClatchy and ProPublica investigation.

“This report is yet another example of mental health abuses, negligence and lack of proper oversight by a county sheriff’s department,” he said. “This type of lax oversight results in lawsuits and settlements where taxpayers continue to foot the bill and pay for the misconduct of our sheriff’s departments across California.”

Jason Pohl reports on criminal justice for The Sacramento Bee. He has reported since 2011 on public safety, mental health and disasters for newspapers in Colorado and Arizona.

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