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Jail reform bill prompted by San Diego jail deaths passes Legislature

A bill authored by San Diego Assemblywoman Dr. Akilah Weber that aims to improve mental health care, medical services and safety standards in California jails has passed both chambers of the state Legislature and awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.

Weber introduced AB 2343, also known as the Saving Lives in Custody Act, shortly after the release of a state audit that found that between 2006 and 2020, San Diego jails had the highest mortality rate among California’s largest counties.

The audit, which Weber requested in June 2021, was released Feb. 3 — the day Sheriff Bill Gore retired from office. It urged state lawmakers to intervene by forcing the San Diego Sheriff’s Department to make certain changes.

“In light of the ongoing risk to inmate safety, the Sheriff’s Department’s inadequate response to deaths, and the lack of effective independent oversight, we believe that the Legislature must take action to ensure that the Sheriff’s Department implements meaningful changes,” wrote Acting California State Auditor Michael S. Tilden.

Weber said that reducing the high number of deaths in San Diego jails has been one of her priority issues and that the bill would address problems there and in jails statewide.

“Community members have been calling attention to this issue for a long time, and I am grateful to finally get the audit done and begin implementing changes through this bill,” she said Wednesday. “I am looking forward to the Governor’s signature.”

The bill passed with minor amendments. For example, an earlier draft had said that state-mandated hourly safety checks should be “sufficiently detailed to determine that the inmate is alive.”

The final version of the bill clarifies that deputies are not required to wake up people during normal sleeping hours.

AB 2343 includes requirements that people be screened by a qualified mental health care provider during booking, that correctional officers receive at least four hours of mental and behavioral health training each year and that jail staff who provide health care and mental health services “receive no fewer than 12 hours of continuing education annually relevant to correctional health care and mental health care.”

The legislation would also require the Board of State and Community Corrections, the independent agency that sets standards for detention facilities, to add to its membership a licensed health care provider and a licensed mental health care provider starting July 1, 2023.

Under the legislation, the board would have to ensure that standards for mental health in jails “meet or exceed the standards established by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.”

For the last several years, the San Diego Union-Tribune has investigated deaths in county jails, including with the multi-part 2019 investigation Dying Behind Bars, which found that San Diego jails have the highest mortality rate among California’s six largest jail systems. People with mental illness were overrepresented among the deaths.

So far this year, 15 people have died in San Diego custody. A 16th person was released from custody hours before his death. Last year, 18 people died in local jails, the highest number of deaths on record.

Weber’s bill had the support of local criminal justice reform groups — the North County Equity & Justice Coalition and the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego — along with the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and SEIU Local 221, the union representing jail health care workers.

The bill’s only opposition came from the California State Sheriffs’ Association, which argued that it would go “too far” by enshrining certain standards into law without subjecting them to scrutiny by outside experts. The association also took issue with the fact that the bill would mandate changes without providing any additional funding.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department did not take a position on the bill but has said that it is taking steps to address the deficiencies identified in the audit.

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