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Jail reform bill prompted by conditions in San Diego passes Assembly committee

Legislation aimed at improving medical, mental health and training standards for jails in California has moved another step toward becoming law.

Assembly Bill 2343, authored by Assemblymember Akilah Weber, D-La Mesa, and known as the “Saving Lives in Custody Act,” won the support of the Assembly Public Safety Committee Tuesday.

Weber introduced the bill in March after a scathing state audit of deaths in San Diego County jails urged lawmakers to pass legislation to address deficiencies in inmate care statewide.

Speaking at the hearing, Weber pointed out that many counties have faced litigation over jail conditions — San Diego County is facing a class-action lawsuit filed by a coalition of civil rights attorneys — and the bill’s provisions would “improve the health and safety of incarcerated individuals in all (state) detention facilities.”

If passed, AB 2343 would require the Board of State and Community Corrections, which sets minimum standards for jail operations, to boost training requirements for jail staff — particularly related to the care of mentally ill incarcerated people — and ensure that deputies conduct “sufficiently detailed safety checks of at-risk incarcerated persons to determine that the person is still alive.”

The bill would also add a licensed health care provider and licensed mental health care provider to the corrections board, which is currently composed mostly of people who work in law enforcement.

Several individuals testified in support of the bill, including Paloma Serna, whose daughter, Elisa, died in the Las Colinas women’s jail in Santee in November 2019.

According to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Serna family, a deputy and a nurse watched as Elisa, 24, suffered a seizure and lost consciousness, hitting her head on the cell wall as she collapsed. Instead of rendering aid, they closed the door; Elisa died shortly after.

“Elisa’s death was preventable,” her mother testified. “She begged for help multiple times, but she was refused by all staff.”

Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, D-Los Angeles, said he has a personal interest in the bill.

“I have a loved one who has spent more than 400 days in George Bailey detention center in San Diego,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot of stories and I think recent audits have revealed more things that need to be worked on.”

A report issued this month by the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board found that San Diego County jails have the highest number of “excess deaths” among California’s 12 largest county jail systems.

A 2019 investigation by The San Diego Union-Tribune, “Dying Behind Bars,” also found that San Diego County had the highest mortality rate of California’s large jail systems, and that while people with mental illness make up about one-third of the local jail population, they represented roughly half of the 140 in-custody deaths the investigation examined.

In 2021, 18 people died in San Diego jail custody, the Union-Tribune found, making it the deadliest year on record.

The only opposition to the bill came from the California State Sheriffs’ Association, whose legislative director, Cory Salzillo, sent a letter to Weber on April 21, outlining the organization’s issues with AB 2343.

“Historically, we have had concerns with growing the size of the BSCC,” Salzillo wrote, referring to the proposal to add two members to the corrections board. “We feel this board has an appropriate current composition and worry that adding to it, notwithstanding the importance of the delivery of medical and mental health care services to incarcerated persons, will dilute the operational efficacy of the body.”

Salzillo’s letter goes on to say that other provisions in the bill, such as additional training requirements, will drive up the cost of operating jails.

The bill now heads to the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee.



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