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Santa Clara County Supervisors Unanimously Approve Jail Reforms

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Blue Ribbon Commission chair LaDoris Cordell speaks before the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. (Beth Willon/KQED)

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors has unanimously accepted recommendations from a group tasked with evaluating county jails.

They include appointing an inspector general to provide independent jail oversight, and a major overhaul in the inmate grievance and complaint process.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Improving Custody Operations was formed in response to last year's death of Michael Tyree, a mentally ill inmate who was held in San Jose. Three jail deputies have been charged with Tyree's murder and face trial. A KQED investigation found that correctional officers fired pepper spray, tear gas and plastic projectiles at another mentally ill man less than a month after Tyree's death.

Recommendations to improve Santa Clara County's troubled jails were presented to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday in a dramatic scorched-earth fashion.

LaDoris Cordell — chairwoman of the independent Blue Ribbon Commission on Improving Custody Operations — compared the jails with a defective crashing plane, with Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith as the pilot.

"Because on the long descent, there was a pilot who was either indifferent or incompetent or a combination of both, and did not realize that this plane was headed to crash," said Cordell, a retired Superior Court judge.


"We believe this is what happened with the jails. So while you may repair the jails and come up with a new and better operation, you still have a poor pilot. And the pilot, or whoever runs the jails, needs to be replaced."

Cordell asked the supervisors for immediate action on taking custody and jail operations away from Smith and creating a separate agency to run them. The commission is not asking Smith to step down as sheriff -- a job she's held since 1998, when voters elected her the first female sheriff in California.

Surrounded by many members of the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department, Smith sat poker-faced during Cordell's presentation. The chairwoman accused Smith and the sheriff's department of everything from withholding information during the commission's investigation to data dumping. Cordell also made it clear she thought Smith was out of line in asking her for private emails, texts and communications under California's Public Records Act.

Sheriff Laurie Smith (R) leaves the Supervisor's meeting unruffled after being heavily criticized.
Sheriff Laurie Smith (R) leaves the supervisors meeting unruffled after being heavily criticized. (Beth Willon/KQED)

Smith did not address the supervisors and left after Cordell's presentation and before public testimony.  Appearing unfazed but determined outside the supervisors' chambers, Smith told reporters the commission's recommendations are great.

"We're moving forward with reforms. I think that we will get there," said Smith. "Let's wait for the National Institute of Corrections report. I think they'll put a lot of things in perspective. They are the national experts that review jail operations."

That report is expected to be released next week. When asked if she is still planning on running for re-election in 2018 Smith said, "I'm not a quitter. I want to see the changes go through."

Cordell is also asking the supervisors for swift action on creating and financing an Office of Inspector General of the Jails. The inspector general would provide independent oversight of jail operations but not run the jails. Smith said that is part of her sweeping jail reform plan and she has no problem with it.

These were part of more than 100 recommendations the blue-ribbon commission has been working on. They are now in the hands of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors for action. The commission was established after three correctional guards allegedly beat to death mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree in August 2015. The guards are now scheduled to stand trial for his murder.

The supervisors unanimously accepted the recommendations, ranging from improving the grievance procedure for inmates to a stronger use-of-force policy for correctional officers.  The commission has been working on them for months and they will now be scrutinized by the finance and government operations committee chaired by Supervisor Joe Simitian.

The former California senator said there needs to be a reality check about the authority the supervisors have to remove control of jail operations from the sheriff.

"We've [county] got an existing contract with the sheriff, we've got a charter that has been voter approved and we've got state law that provides certain limitations on the county as distinct from the authority of the sheriff," said Simitian. "We're going to have to work our way through all those to see if we can't get to a better model that provides more oversight, more accountability and a better result."

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