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To reduce jail deaths and overdoses, supervisors to take up added pay, improved body scans

The record pace of deaths in San Diego County jails so far this year has driven Nathan Fletcher to help push the Sheriff’s Department toward reform.

The chairman of the county Board of Supervisors plans to ask his colleagues to approve emergency orders aimed at reducing the number of in-custody drug overdoses and improving inmate healthcare.

Fletcher said preliminary data from the county medical examiner indicate that more than 1,300 people countywide accidentally overdosed last year — more than double the number of deaths five years ago.

“Trends in the increase of drug overdoses in the general population are mirrored within the jails,” the board chairman wrote in a letter to supervisors that will be considered Tuesday.

“In 2022, there have been 15 deaths in the jails, and drug overdose has been a significant driver of these deaths.”

The request, which would cost the Sheriff’s Department almost $12 million, would come days after a group of civil-rights lawyers pleaded with a federal judge to impose new safety measures.

The hearing Thursday coincided with public pleas from relatives of men and women who have died in sheriff’s custody to do more to protect people held in San Diego County jails.

Judge Anthony J. Battaglia took the matter under submission and has yet to rule on the request. Either way, the matter is scheduled for trial early next year.

Fletcher is not asking the board to allocate additional money to the Sheriff’s Department, which controls a budget of almost $1.1 billion.

The proposal calls for spending some $11.6 million on incentives, pay differentials and other benefits to new and current department employees. It also sets aside $200,000 for an enhanced body-scanning program aimed at reducing the volume of drugs that are smuggled into county jails.

Fletcher said his staff has worked with Sheriff’s Department officials to develop the proposals. As an elected official, the sheriff generally operates outside the purview of the Board of Supervisors, although the board controls the budget.

“If they need supplemental funds, we’ll give them supplemental funds,” the board chair said. “This action was developed in collaboration with the Sheriff’s Department. It was ‘What else do you need?’

“Our board cares deeply about improved conditions in our jails.”

The Sheriff’s Department said it already has implemented several changes to practices in its jails and routinely reaches out to the Board of Supervisors and others to continue to improve.

“The proposed changes to the compensation ordinance, bonus pay for hiring, and the body scanner technology are recommendations that originated from the Sheriff’s Department and would be funded by the department budget,” Lt. Amber Baggs said.

“We fully support and embrace improvements and changes, and we appreciate the support we receive from our board,” she added.

San Diego County has the highest jail-mortality rate among California’s largest 12 counties, according to a host of independent studies completed in recent years.

Earlier this year, for example, the California State Auditor issued a scathing report showing 185 men and women died while they were incarcerated in San Diego County jails between 2006 and 2020.

The audit said conditions in San Diego jails were so dangerous that the state Legislature should pass legislation to impose reforms on the department.

Separately, the county Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board issued a report this year that found San Diego County had the highest number of so-called excess deaths — fatalities above what would be expected based on the jail population.

Both of those studies came after The San Diego Union-Tribune published a six-month investigation in 2019 that found that the death rate in local jails was far higher than other large California counties.

The newspaper investigation also disclosed that jail fatalities are costing taxpayers millions of dollars due to an escalating number of civil lawsuits, jury awards and legal settlements.

The 15 jail deaths this year include five deaths recorded just last month.

The number of fatalities so far this year is approaching the record rate of deaths reported in 2021, when the 18 people who died in custody last year was the highest number recorded in the modern era.

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