The California State Auditor’s office called on legislators to revise laws that appear to have contributed to high numbers of jail deaths.
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California isn’t doing enough to ensure inmate safety in county jails.
That was one of the main takeaways of a scathing Thursday report from the California State Auditor’s office, which called on state legislators to revise laws that appear to have contributed to high numbers of jail deaths in San Diego County and across the state.
- One key problem: State law doesn’t require mental health clinicians to evaluate inmates’ mental health needs during their initial screening. In one case at the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, a registered nurse determined an inmate who had requested urgent mental health services didn’t qualify for an immediate appointment — only for the individual to commit suicide two days later.
- Another issue: Although state law requires jails to conduct inmate safety checks at least hourly, it doesn’t define what counts as an adequate safety check. The auditor’s office observed “multiple instances” at the San Diego Sheriff’s Department in which “staff spent no more than one second glancing into the individuals’ cells, sometimes without breaking stride” — only to later discover some inmates had been dead for hours.
Although the audit focused specifically on problems in San Diego County jails — where 185 people died from 2006 to 2020, one of the highest totals of any county — it also noted that California itself appears to be backsliding on inmate safety.
- Acting State Auditor Michael Tilden wrote: “Given that the annual number of incarcerated individuals’ deaths in county jails across the state increased from 130 in 2006 to 156 in 2020, improving the statewide standards is essential to ensuring the health and safety of individuals in custody in all counties.”
- Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Assemblymember Akilah Weber, both San Diego Democrats: We “remain committed to accountability and to ensuring that the recommendations laid out by the State Auditor are implemented.”
The report comes at a moment of reckoning for California as state and local governments try to tackle the interwoven issues of incarceration, mental illness, homelessness and drug use — and address a backlog of unsentenced people languishing in county jails.
- Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed reforming California’s conservatorship laws to give the state a “few more tools” for helping those with severe mental illness and is pouring billions of dollars into cleaning encampments and moving homeless people into housing with wraparound services.
- San Francisco is grappling with a drug overdose epidemic that in the last two years killed nearly twice as many people as COVID-19 did.
- Santa Clara County, torn between building a new mental health treatment center or a new jail, chose the jail — but noted that a brand-new facility with expanded mental health services and rehabilitative programs could help improve inmate outcomes.
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Other stories you should know
1. “Vaccine czar” leaves Newsom admin
Newsom’s administration is losing its third top official in less than a week: Yolanda Richardson, secretary of the Government Operations Agency and whom Newsom at one point described as California’s “vaccine czar,” announced Thursday that she is resigning March 2. The news comes two days after California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris announced her resignation and six days after Employment Development Director Rita Saenz stepped down, giving the state’s beleaguered unemployment agency its third leader in two years.
- Among the duties for which Richardson was responsible, according to her state bio: Spearheading California’s vaccine rollout and ensuring the equitable distribution of shots; leading a Newsom-appointed strike team to find solutions to EDD’s myriad problems (which released its report five days late); procuring “millions of pieces” of personal protective equipment; directing state workers’ transition to telework; and leading California’s 2020 U.S. Census efforts.
- Richardson’s next role: serving as CEO of the San Francisco Health Plan, which administers Medi-Cal in the city.
2. Final recall costs are in
$200.2 million — that’s about how much it cost the state and counties to administer the September 2021 gubernatorial recall election, Secretary of State Shirley Weber announced Thursday. Although that’s significantly cheaper than the previously estimated price tag of $276 million, the recall was still “a substantial cost to taxpayers and a significant disruption to governing the state,” Weber said. The secretary of state, who earlier this week testified at a legislative hearing in support of overhauling California’s recall system, added, “this price tag confirms that it is necessary to revisit the recall process and to pursue effective reforms.”
- That didn’t sit well with the state Assembly Republican Caucus, which pointed out that Weber also said during the hearing, “Government is never too expensive. Democracy is never too expensive, if it’s done right.”
- Case in point: California is holding five special elections in the next few months to fill Democratic vacancies in the state Assembly, including one that Newsom proclaimed Thursday to replace recently resigned Assemblymember Autumn Burke of Los Angeles.
Other recall costs: The San Francisco Chronicle took a look at final campaign expense reports filed this week to determine how much unsuccessful recall candidates spent per vote, with costs ranging from $38.60 per vote for GOP businessman John Cox to $0.65 per vote for Democratic YouTube personality Kevin Paffrath. Newsom’s anti-recall campaign spent $9.21 per vote, according to the analysis.
3. COVID-related sick leave advances
From CalMatters reporter Sameea Kamal: State lawmakers could vote as soon as next week on Newsom and legislative leaders’ deal to reinstate up to two weeks paid time off for COVID-related sick leave — the result of a key Senate committee voting Thursday to advance the proposal. All the Democrats on the committee voted in support of the bill, while three of three of five Republicans opposed it and GOP state Sens. Melissa Melendez of Murrieta and Shannon Grove of Bakersfield didn’t take a position.
- In a shift that aligns its position with labor groups, the powerful California Chamber of Commerce this week announced its support for the bill after the governor’s office “considerably improved” it to make it more affordable and manageable for businesses. The proposal “is a balanced approach to protect both workers and our economy,” said Cal Chamber President and CEO Jennifer Barrera, adding that “healthy workers and healthy customers are good for business.”
- Nevertheless, concerns remain. Steve McCarthy, vice president of public policy and regulatory affairs for the California Retailers Association, noted that employees exposed to COVID at work are already eligible for paid leave under separate rules from Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace safety agency. “This measure acts as an additional layer of leave on top of what employers are already required to provide and will apply whether the employee contracted the virus at work or not,” McCarthy said.
4. Castro under scrutiny
Joseph Castro, who in September 2020 became the first Mexican American chancellor of California State University — the nation’s largest public four-year university system with 480,000 students across 23 campuses — is under fire for mishandling sexual assault allegations in his previous role as president of Fresno State. According to a stunning USA Today investigation published Thursday, Castro:
- Never formally disciplined Frank Lamas, whom he hired to lead Fresno State’s division of student affairs, even after two parallel internal investigations found Lamas responsible for sexual harassment and creating an abusive work environment.
- Praised Lamas in annual performance reviews and endorsed him for a prestigious lifetime achievement award.
- Reached a settlement agreement with Lamas — instead of firing him or asking for his resignation — that included $260,000, full retirement benefits and the promise of a letter of recommendation for any college job not in the CSU system.
Terry Wilson, a former staff member who said Lamas harassed and retaliated against him: “It scares me to no end to think that Joe Castro is in charge of 23 CSUs, thousands of staff, hundreds of thousands of students, and hundreds of millions of dollars, and yet he couldn’t make the right decision at Fresno State.”
Castro: “First and foremost, I apologize to anyone in the Fresno State community who was impacted by Dr. Lamas’ behavior. … While we acted in accordance with applicable CSU policies, as well as state and federal law, in hindsight there are some things I wish I had handled differently.”
Friday, Sen. Connie Leyva, chairperson of the Senate Education Committee, called for a thorough investigation by the CSU board of trustees. So did Assemblymember Jose Medina, chairperson of the Assembly committee on higher education. And if the allegations are proven true, Leyva said, Castro should resign immediately.
In response, reports CalMatters higher education writer Mikhail Zinshetyn, Castro said he welcomed an independent investigation. And Lillian Kimbell, chairperson of the board of trustees said in a statement: “I appreciate Chancellor Castro’s receptivity and desire for an independent investigation. I intend to ask my board colleagues in the coming days to support these steps, as I know it will help us improve practices and policies for the future.”
Exhausted teens need later school start times: You don’t need to harm kids’ health to run an efficient school district or to have a thriving sports program, argue Rafael Pelayo of the Stanford University School of Medicine and Joy Wake of Let’s Sleep!
California isn’t falling behind on aquaculture: Over the past 10 years, the state has approved and amended dozens of permits for aquaculture operations, including seven seaweed farms, writes Jack Ainsworth, executive director of the California Coastal Commission.
Other things worth your time
California inks sweetheart deal with Kaiser Permanente, jeopardizing Medicaid reforms. // Kaiser Health News
Sacramento man arrested in deadly mass shooting on Greyhound bus. // Sacramento Bee
California bill would let patients have voice in doctor discipline. // Los Angeles Times
How California is fighting to make it easier to put people under conservatorships. // Slate
California could provide school buses for all kids after years of cuts. // Los Angeles Times
After setbacks, dyslexia screening for young students advances in California schools. // EdSource
Can pass/fail stem big drop in California community college enrollment? // Los Angeles Times
Newsom administration again taps border wall company for COVID staffing. // CapRadio
Cannabis workers approve first-ever statewide contract in big win for labor. // SF Standard
Former Tesla worker sues company claiming abuse ‘reminiscent of the Jim Crow Era.’ // CNN
San Diego facing new police officer vacancy crisis blamed partly on vaccine mandate. // San Diego Union-Tribune
Officials face questions about beating of 49ers fan at SoFi. // Los Angeles Times
Court upholds density bonus law exempting certain housing projects from local restrictions. // San Francisco Chronicle
Oakland landlords lose appeal after paying $6,500 to evict renters. // Mercury News
Lawsuit claims San Jose mayor violated public records laws. // Associated Press
San Diego Port Commissioner Jennifer LeSar to resign because of work for SANDAG. // San Diego Union-Tribune
California ISO sketches $30.5B draft transmission plan to meet state’s clean energy goals. // Utility Dive
California urged to keep nuclear plant open to meet climate goals. // Reuters
Solar developer accused of fraud inflated invoices by more than $10 million, prosecutors allege. // Orange County Register
‘Reduced risk’ pesticides are widespread in California streams. // Inside Climate News
In thrilling role reversal, a farmer is opening Oakland’s next big-deal restaurant. // San Francisco Chronicle
How Fauci became an investor in a legendary San Francisco trattoria. // Eater SF
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