The successor to the current Santa Clara County sheriff will have a tough challenge: to reform a department that has been plagued with scandal and allegations of corruption.
Under Sheriff Laurie Smith's watch, the department had to settle lawsuits by injured inmates and their families for millions of dollars and saw the California Attorney General open an independent investigation into Smith's role in the jailhouse injuries.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors both issued a vote of "no confidence" in Smith and also requested that the Fair Political Practices Commission investigate her.
Vying in the Nov. 8 election to lead the law-enforcement agency are former Palo Alto Police Chief Robert "Bob" Jonsen and retired Sheriff's Office Capt. Kevin Jensen.
In this article, part 2 of 2, the Palo Alto Weekly asked Jensen and Jonsen to weigh in on the new main jail, control of the jails and staffing levels. These are their verbatim responses to the Weekly's questionnaire.
If you missed part 1, in which the opponents describe their unique qualifications and what they would do about transparency, mental health care among inmates and the culture among deputies, you can read it here.
NEW MAIN JAIL
Do you support the construction of the new main jail as it is planned? Why or why not?
I supported the building of the jail early on because I have seen the conditions that staff and the incarcerated have had to endure, and I knew that it was designed with valued input and advice of mental health professionals who saw fit to vastly increase the space for treatment opportunities, and to create a facility with an environment, look and architecture that is more conducive to rehabilitation, treatment and recovery — while also providing space for security provisions necessary for the revised classifications of incarcerated persons. The new jail is now hundreds of millions over budget and is undergoing delay and revised bidding.
We will never incarcerate ourselves out of the problems we face, and I believe that we can reduce recidivism and jail populations responsibly. However, I also believe that we need to stop feeding into the extreme positions of "lock them all up" or "let them all out." I have seen rehabilitation work in the jails, in my own family and extended families. I have also had many contacts with serial offenders, predators and admittedly remorseless individuals that added to my understanding.
While we created opportunities for improvement even for the hardest of these individuals, I have come to realize that a balanced approach of compassion and consequences is needed. We have to have humane, secure and multifaceted facilities in addition to creating front end care facilities and opportunities that will form a network of different environments for better care and results.
Yes, because the structure, design and lack of access to services require a new facility. In 2020, amidst severe budget cuts, I was able to address the importance to the Palo Alto City Council that a new public safety building (PSB) needed to replace the 50-year-old building. The construction of the new jail is important for workforce morale, and the well-being of those housed in the justice system.
Recent research is supportive of it as well. A paper published last year, “Inside the Box: Safety, Health, and Isolation in Prison,” studied the harms that are suffered in incarceration. I completely agree with the findings that we need to reassess how we approach mental health around the principles of “normalization” and “resocialization.”
I am excited about working with the designers of the new jail to create an environment that enhances the well-being of all within it. I believe we can design a facility capable of secure housing for violent offenders, equipped with state-of-the-art continuum of care for individuals who are struggling with mental illnesses or substance use disorders, and built with adequate classrooms for educational and workforce training programs. We need to run the jail more like educational facilities. I look to further the partnerships in place with the Sheriff’s Programs Unit, exploring programs and services that will increase the ability to reduce recidivism, with an emphasis on programs that provide development, training, and educational services.
I've already had meetings evaluating reentry training programs for justice-involved individuals. There’s a tremendous demand for skilled workers, especially with Green Workforce opportunities, so more apprentice programs need to be offered. Providing multiple training and educational opportunities will support our ongoing effort towards successful reentry into society, by equipping people with skills needed for sustainable employment. Those opportunities need to be available from day one of incarceration.
CONTROL OF JAILS
Do you support continued management of the jail system by the Sheriff's Office or do you believe the public would be better served if it were returned to a Department of Corrections? Why?
While I am always willing to listen to ideas on how best to manage the many parts that now make up the Sheriff’s Office, I am also the one person who has the experience as assistant chief of the Department of Correction when it was considered a National Award-winning model in many ways. I have the overwhelming trust of the employees who are desperate for ethical leadership and fair treatment of employees, the incarcerated, and all those family and stakeholders who are affected by the operations and management of the custody division.
If I had not spoken out publicly at the Board of Supervisors meetings warning against the sheriff’s efforts to take back the jails, if I hadn’t spoken out publicly numerous times to the County Blue Ribbon Commission on the Jails on the mismanagement and corruption of the Sheriff, and if I hadn’t continuously educated people for over 12 years as to the issues that are now on display at the trial of the current sheriff — facing the consequences to me and those who courageously joined my efforts — then I would not expect to be given the opportunity to make the positive changes that we all desire.
While I am open to options. I know that I have the support and trust of those who will be required to change the jails and entire agency from a culture of blind loyalty to a sheriff to a culture of loyalty to the mission, ethical, fair and self-controlled treatment of all people, and an expectation that we will gain more with transparency, mutual respect and excellent service than with secrecy, condescension and self-interest.
I believe it should remain within the Sheriff’s Office. I realize with all the scrutiny and the issues over the last several years confronting the Sheriff’s Office would make for a good argument to return it to a Department of Correction; however, I also believe I have the experience to lead to organization where it needs to be.
There’s progress in addressing the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations, but we need to place a stronger emphasis on key issues. Enhancing accountability measures, expanding access to mental health services, and providing more educational and rehabilitation programs will be a top priority for me as the next sheriff. I have had working relationships with Independent Auditors in two organizations (LASD and Palo Alto) and will be able to dramatically enhance the collaboration with the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM) on day one.
I will also be very engaged with the Community Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring Committee (CCLEM). As you know, OCLEM has oversight of the original list of 623 recommendations, which has been supplemented with a list of 80 “Summarized Recommendations” that group the individual items together. I will actively work with them so progress can continue.
Furthermore, improving efficiency mechanisms will also be a first-year objective. The Jail Management System (a top reform recommendation) is an important first step to enhancing jail operations, but for years, every agency in the county has complained about how long it takes to process individuals at the main jail. An intake-processing solution needs to be a top priority and one I plan to address immediately. For every hour an officer is waiting to book a suspect into jail is an hour they are not directly serving their community. We need to rectify this issue, and I have solutions for doing it.
The adequacy of staffing of the jails has been publicly disputed: A 2021 report concluded that the system was understaffed, and yet individual facilities are overstaffed. What is your perspective on staffing and what do you believe needs to be done about it given current population counts?
For a staffing levels study to accurately reflect the needs of the operation and appropriately educate decision makers it needs to contain the history and justification of prior staffing levels and a thorough explanation of the many factors that have affected, and may again affect, the county jails (state prison reductions, health issues like COVID-19 and its variants, zero bail, etc…). Recently, while populations decreased, the need for separation of inmates increased based on health and other considerations. This creates issues for staff oversight, decreased out of cell time in violation of the consent decree, and it happened when staff resignations and other departures forced heavy mandatory overtime. We cannot have 35 staff on duty when normal staffing is 70. Reports of increased incarcerated-on-staff and incarcerated-on-incarcerated violence were troubling.
I want the staffing levels outcome to be an appropriate one, based on substantiated needs, expert opinion and fiscal responsibility. I believe that we have to understand both the need to protect the incarcerated and jail staff as well as budgetary constraints. We also have to remember that we have witnessed human suffering and loss — and great financial costs when decisions are made that don’t reflect enough reason and balance of the sometimes competing interests.
SCCSO is approved for approximately 1,299 sworn positions and recently reported around 74 vacancies on the correctional side, and 91 on the enforcement side (12%). The staffing issues are getting worse due to recruiting and retention issues, so we must get aggressive in filling those gaps. Yet, I agree with Jeff Smith’s assessment that operations within the jails have changed dramatically since COVID-19 (reduced population, diversion programs, etc.) and a new staffing study needs to be conducted.
My hope is the next study factors future operational priorities the next sheriff wants to establish. In my case, more educational and skill-based certification programs. With that said, until staffing is brought back up, we will need to re-assess where our personnel are needed and assign accordingly to meet workload needs. I have experience in doing that because it’s exactly what we needed to do after major staffing reductions occurred in Palo Alto (2020).
I addressed staffing issues with both Menlo Park and Palo Alto, where we successfully halted the exodus of sworn staff (which was occurring prior to my arrival). I filled vacancies quickly by adjusting pay to the market level, creating opportunities for career development, and even introduced new positions into the organizations.
New leadership can turn the tide quickly, and even create a much-needed internal energy focused on the new direction the Sheriff’s Office will be going. I want to create non-sworn positions, designed to handle non-critical functions, for the Sheriff’s Office so we free up the capacity of some of the essential operations personnel (like we did with the community service officer positions in Palo Alto). I also want to create pathways into the profession by providing part-time positions to student/explorers while in school.