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County Failures, Not State Reforms, Are Killing People In California Jails

Since the state’s public safety realignment in 2011, sheriffs have used criminal legal reform as a scapegoat for their failure to maintain safe jails—and recent reporting has given county officials a free pass to make that excuse.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Lorenzo Mays spent nearly eight years in solitary confinement at the Sacramento County jail while waiting for his day in court, which was repeatedly delayed because he was found not competent to stand trial. Soon after he arrived at the jail in 2010, Mays was assaulted by other incarcerated people and placed in solitary. Over the next eight years, Mays experienced severe depression, suicidal thoughts, auditory hallucinations, sleep irregularities, and a diagnosed vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sunlight. 

On June 20, Sacramento County settled a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by Mays and five other named plaintiffs alleging that it “knowingly created and perpetuated overcrowded and understaffed jails.” The lawsuit also claimed that the jail failed to provide adequate medical or mental health care and subjected many incarcerated people to “harsh, prolonged, and undue isolation … in dark, cramped, filthy cells for 23 1⁄2 hours or more per day.” 

The settlement agreement requires the county to improve the quality of medical and mental health care, revise its use-of-force policies in coordination with mental health service providers, minimize the use of restrictive housing for people with mental illness, and most important, “prevent unnecessary incarceration of individuals with serious mental illness.” 

In a recent article about the settlement, the Sacramento Bee claimed that the 46 percent increase in California county jail homicides between 2011 and 2019 was caused by realignment, a 2011 reform that reduced the state’s prison population by about 26,000 and increased the average daily jail population by just under 10,000. To justify this claim, the Bee pointed to its recent investigation with ProPublica (“California Tried to Fix Its Prisons. Now County Jails Are More Deadly.”) and statements by Sacramento officials, arguing that the county “has struggled to handle the subsequent influx of older, violent and mentally ill inmates.” 

But realignment is not the cause of jail deaths. Local sheriffs are responsible for conditions of confinement in California county jails. And the Bee’s argument—that jail deaths are caused by overcrowding stemming from realignment—does not take into account that decarceration could improve conditions in county jails and preserve the liberty of Californians.

An excuse for county jail abuses

In May 2011, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling in Brown v. Plata and ruled that conditions in California’s prisons constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The lower court’s ruling ordered state officials to reduce the prison population to 110,000 from 156,000. California complied with that ruling by passing Assembly Bill 109, commonly known as “public safety realignment,” which ended the practice of reincarcerating parolees for violations that are less serious than committing a new felony and ensured that people convicted of nonviolent, “nonserious,” and nonsexual crimes served sentences in county jails instead of state prisons. This fact alone undermines the claim that realignment made jails more violent by moving people convicted of serious crimes from state prisons to county jails. On the contrary, people convicted of violent crimes continued to serve their sentences in state prisons after realignment. 

A June 2013 report on the effects of realignment from the Public Policy Institute of California noted that the policy caused the average daily county jail population to increase by one person for every three fewer people incarcerated in state prisons, and noted that counties became more likely to release pretrial detainees held in jails to mitigate overcrowding. 

Policymakers behind realignment were perhaps too optimistic in believing that counties would begin to incarcerate fewer people: Between 2011 and 2014, the average jail population increased by 12 percent, leading several counties to propose jail expansions or new jail construction. Realignment also transferred $4.4 billion in state revenue to counties, and although the legislation encouraged them to spend the funds on community-based alternatives to incarceration, they retained discretion over fund allocations. 

A 2014 analysis by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center found significant variation in county spending priorities in the wake of realignment. While Fresno County allocated two-thirds of its realignment funds to law enforcement, Sacramento allocated only 50 percent, and well over a dozen counties allocated less than one-third of their funds to law enforcement, investing the rest in programs and services. The authors found that counties that spent more on law enforcement before realignment were more likely to allocate a larger proportion of realignment funds toward law enforcement, indicating that realignment did not drastically change spending priorities.

Uncritical reporting on sheriffs’ realignment claims

County jail officials’ habit of blaming their own failures on realignment is not new. In 2014, Prison Legal News cited several instances where sheriffs used realignment as a scapegoat for their failure to maintain minimally habitable jail conditions. Former Monterey County Sheriff Scott Miller claimed that “in-custody medical cases have been exacerbated due to realignment”; San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said he was “seeing a little more gang influence inside the jails and a little more violence”; and Fresno County Assistant Sheriff Tom Gattie insisted that “the violence is just being transferred to the local facilities from the state system.”

ProPublica and the Sacramento Bee’s series on county jail deaths provided a quantitative veneer of support for claims by county sheriffs, arguing that realignment is to blame for brutal jail conditions. The reporting acknowledged that negligence by county officials is a cause of jail violence, but failed to focus on that issue. For instance, the reporters noted that “apathy among officials … has fostered a crisis,” and pointed out that Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims “asked reporters for basic details about the fatalities in her own jail.” Sheriff Mims’s disregard for the well-being of people incarcerated in her jails aligns with her vehement public opposition to criminal legal reform and her commitment to incarcerating as many people as possible, regardless of the public safety outcome. 

The latest entry in the ProPublica and Sacramento Bee investigative series also claimed that realignment is responsible for violence in “overwhelmed county jails.” But the reporters noted that Los Angeles County—home to America’s largest jail system with an average daily population of about 17,000 people—has not had a jail death in over three years. How did Los Angeles manage to do this? In 2014, a legal settlement required the county to work with a monitor to improve conditions at the jail after the public discovered that guards had allowed or encouraged fights. By the end of 2017, the county implemented crisis intervention and conflict resolution training for jail staff, revised its use-of-force policies, and enforced mental health expert participation in various jail protocols. 

In other words, people stopped dying in Los Angeles County jails because jail leadership was forced to take responsibility for incarcerated people. That success might not last for long, however: Newly elected Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is attempting to roll back reforms and reinstate deputies accused of lying and using excessive force. 

Most recently, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece summarizing the results of realignment and other efforts to reduce California’s prison population, but quoted only a Department of Corrections official instead of someone who had been incarcerated in California prisons. The reporter wrote that “critics have said too many lower-level offenders have been responsible for new crimes,” but failed to name such critics or the crimes allegedly committed. And the claim that realignment caused formerly incarcerated people to reoffend at substantially higher rates is not borne out by evidence

A decarceral path forward

To prevent jail deaths, counties should improve conditions of confinement. But humane jails aren’t enough. Following the Sacramento jail settlement agreement, plaintiffs’ counsel Disability Rights California rightly noted in a statement that “the County will fail to meet the needs of people in Sacramento if it simply pours money into the jail.” 

Arrest and incarceration should never be the state’s preferred response to social problems, and especially not for behavioral health crises, as demonstrated by the in-custody death of Marshall Miles last fall. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department arrested Miles for jumping on top of cars at a traffic intersection, and Miles’s mother arrived at the scene as he was forced into a sheriff’s deputy’s squad car, where he yelled, “Mom! Please, Mom, help me!” She pleaded with the officers to let her see him or take him to the hospital, but deputies refused and he was taken to the county jail. Hours later, he was dead. 

Prioritizing budget increases for law enforcement and jails in response to misconduct and violence usually amounts to throwing money into the trash. Former Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy Donald Black—infamous for directing deputies to use flashbang grenades to force prisoners who were protesting conditions from their cells—cost the county more than $2 million across seven legal settlements between 2001 and 2009. 

For decades, politicians in California and nationwide have ignored demands for community investment, instead opting to boost spending on policing and incarceration. But this trend can be reversed, and directly impacted communities have provided a plan for decarceration and community reinvestment. Led by Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, the Reform L.A. Jails Committee is pushing for a 2020 ballot initiative to implement civilian oversight, reduce jail populations, and reinvest savings into underserved communities. 

Currently, about 70 percent of the Los Angeles County jail population is medically or mentally ill, and 2016 data show that 608 per 100,000 people in the county are incarcerated in state or local facilities (four times the incarceration rate of San Francisco). A recent report by Cullors’s #JusticeLA Campaign calls for “a local and decentralized system of community based services” to address mental health and substance abuse problems without coercion or incarceration, a “pretrial system based on the presumption of innocence” and an end to money bail, and substantial reinvestment of carceral funds into supportive community-based institutions and union jobs. 

California counties don’t just owe incarcerated people better living conditions—they also owe communities robust support outside the punishment apparatus.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem is a criminal justice advocate who also writes about issues including policing and the criminalization of poverty.