San Jose sheriff presents jail reform to address multiple issues to Santa Clara committee

SAN JOSE (BCN) — An extensive plan to reform Santa Clara County jails addresses multiple issues including training staff, providing mental health services and complaint oversight.

Sheriff Laurie Smith gave highlights of the 13-point plan during a meeting of the county’s Public Safety and Justice Committee at the board chambers in San Jose this afternoon.

Many of the proposed changes were on the table prior to 31-year-old Michael Tyree’s death in late August at the county’s Main Jail in San Jose, Smith said.

Three jail guards will stand trial on charges of murdering Tyree and assaulting another inmate, Juan Villa, who both suffer from mental illness.

Tyree’s death has propelled efforts to improve jail conditions, she said. The county formed a Blue Ribbon Commission on Improving Custody Operations that has been meeting on a bimonthly basis since November.

One of the important proposed changes will be the formation of a specialized team that will respond to crisis situations involving inmates with mental health issues, Smith said.

Members of the team would de-escalate the situation, the sheriff said.

There would also be an on-call team for significant use of force incidents in addition to a custody review committee to evaluate the investigation and make recommendations where needed, according to Smith.

The sheriff’s office is also working on revising its use of force policy to better define preventive methods and techniques to de-escalate an encounter with an inmate, she said.

Members of the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections have agreed to conduct an organizational assessment of the county’s jail system at the end of the month, Smith said.

The assessment will be presented to the Board of Supervisors in May, she said.

A Jail Diversion and Behavioral Health Subcommittee was formed at the call of the commission to look at ways people with mental health and substance issues can be kept from custody facilities.

The plan also includes establishing a tracking system for inmate grievances and providing categories for inmates to better specify their complaints.

Many filed grievances fall into a “black hole” and revolve around inmates not receiving their medication, Supervisor Ken Yeager said.

Custody staff is working with medical personnel to correct the system and increase communication to resolve all grievances, Smith said.

The plan calls for increasing the number of treatment services available to those with mental illness once they are released.

“I don’t believe that the jail should ever be a holding facility for those that have mental health issues,” Smith said.

“Very often we find that the crime they’ve committed is sometimes a result of their mental health issues,” she said.

Other proposals include improving the Jail Classification System to make sure inmates are housed in the appropriate conditions, sending all complaints on employees to the Internal Affairs Unit and raising the minimum education level needed for a correctional deputy, which is currently at a high school diploma.

County Public Defender Molly O’Neal emphasized the need to

increase the required qualifications for correctional officers, which can in turn lower the number of complaints.

The Public Defender’s Office represents about 80 percent of inmates in the county’s criminal justice system, according to O’Neal.

“If we can change the way we hire the people who are dealing with inmates and managing inmate needs, we are going to be in much better shape,” O’Neal said.

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