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Two Years After Guards Murdered Inmate, a Plan to Reform Santa Clara Jail Oversight

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Santa Clara's Main Jail. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)

Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian is putting forward a draft ordinance to establish independent civilian oversight of the county’s troubled jail system.

Jail operations have been under intense scrutiny since the death two years ago of a mentally ill man. This summer three guards were convicted of second-degree murder for beating Michael Tyree to death.

Simitian says he plans to present his proposal at next week’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

"Clearly civilian oversight is going to be a key ingredient in terms of preventing a further tragedy somewhere down the road," he said.

Tyree's death spurred the creation of a Blue Ribbon Commission that examined operations at the jail and, among other recommendations, stressed the need for meaningful civilian oversight. The commission's chair, retired Judge LaDoris Cordell, says Simitian's proposal is critical to improving conditions at the jail.

"It’s a bold step, but it’s been long needed," Cordell said. "This is going to go a big way to making the jails more humane and protecting everybody who works in the jails as well as the inmates."


The proposed oversight office would monitor and audit both jails and the sheriff's office. The ordinance also provides for the creation of a citizen's oversight committee. The director of the new office would not report to the sheriff, Cordell said.

"This is a separate body that reports to the board and to the public," Cordell said. "The beauty of this is that it promotes transparency and it’s independent."

Sheriff Laurie Smith said that she looks forward to working with county supervisors.

“Transformative change continues to occur throughout our custody facilities with the goal of ensuring a more holistic approach toward how we, as a law enforcement entity, safely and humanely manage inmates. In March of 2016, I created a reform plan which incorporated oversight as one of its key pillars to improve the culture, conditions and operations of our custody facilities," she said.

Simitian says his proposal is just a first draft, but he’s hoping to have a final version by the end of the year to allow it to go before voters next June.

"I think we're at the point now where it's time for something to get done," he said.

Lisa Pickoff-White contributed to this report.

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