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With San Diego jail deaths at record pace, Newsom vetoes bill to improve safety standards

Gov. Gavin Newsom has vetoed legislation that would have mandated improvements to mental health care, medical services and safety standards in California jails, disappointing advocates who have pushed for reforms as people continue to die in San Diego jails at a record pace.

So far this year, 17 people have died in San Diego custody, and an 18th person was released only hours before his death. Last year, 18 people died in local jail custody, the highest number of deaths on record.

The bill, AB 2343, the Saving Lives in Custody Act, was authored by San Diego Assemblymember Akilah Weber following a highly critical state audit that found that between 2006 and 2020, San Diego jails were the deadliest among California’s largest counties.

Weber requested the audit in June 2021 at the urging of community advocates and families of people who have died in jail. The audit, released Feb. 3, included a letter from Acting California State Auditor Michael S. Tilden, urging state lawmakers to intervene.

“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,” Tilden wrote.

In his veto message Thursday, Newsom focused on only one of the bill’s provisions — adding a licensed healthcare provider and a licensed mental health provider to the Board of State and Community Corrections, the independent agency that sets standards for California detention facilities.

“BSCC has had a thirteen-member board since 2013. I am concerned that adding two members unnecessarily grows the board and could impede its ability to timely carry out its mission,” he wrote.

The board’s current membership is comprised mostly of law enforcement, including two sheriffs, two chief probation officers and one police chief. San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore was a board member from June 2018 until his retirement earlier this year.

Weber said she planned to work with the governor’s office and reintroduce the bill next year.

Paloma Serna, whose daughter Elisa died from medical complications in the Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in Santee, said the governor’s veto was “a slap in the face to the families” whose loved ones have died in San Diego jails.

“We need medical professionals sitting on the board,” she said.

Elisa died on Nov. 11, 2019, after collapsing in her cell from a seizure. A jail nurse and a deputy who saw her fall failed to render medical aid and left her alone in the cell. The nurse has been charged with manslaughter. No charges have been filed against the deputy.

Yusef Miller, a member of the North County Equity and Justice Coalition, which was a sponsor of the bill, called the veto “disheartening for me and absolutely devastating to the families.”

Miller said the coalition plans to keep its focus on changes in San Diego jails.

“Impacted family members who have been attending monthly meetings of the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board for two years under the banner of the grassroots Saving Lives in Custody Campaign are dedicated to the fight for reform,” he said.

SEIU Local 221, the union representing San Diego jail health care workers, was also a bill sponsor.

“SEIU members strongly supported AB 2343 to establish statewide standards for mental health care in local correctional facilities as a key plank of our restorative justice agenda,” said union president Crystal Irving. “While we are disappointed by Gov. Newsom’s veto, we remain determined to address this crisis of preventable death and injustice.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department said that ongoing efforts to improve jail conditions “mirror recommendations made by the state audit report on San Diego County jails.”

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to keeping individuals in our custody safe, as well as making improvements and positive changes to continue providing them the highest quality medical and mental health care,” said Lt. Amber Baggs.

For the last several years, the San Diego Union-Tribune has been investigating 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 chronic health conditions and mental illness were overrepresented among those who died.

On Thursday, Newsom also vetoed AB 2632, which would have limited the use of solitary confinement in California jails, prisons and private detention centers. He wrote in a veto message that while he supported the measure, it would have cost too much money to implement.

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