Opinion: San Diego County jail deaths have California lawmakers’ attention

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More than 150 people have died while in custody in San Diego County jails since 2009, and extensive reporting by The San Diego Union-Tribune has established that many of the deaths could have been avoided if the Sheriff’s Department had better suicide-prevention practices and kept a closer eye on inmates with serious health issues. The newspaper’s “Dying Behind Bars” investigation published in 2019 showed San Diego County jails had the highest mortality and suicide rates among California’s largest jail systems.

Given this history, it’s welcome news that six local Democratic state lawmakers have asked the Legislature’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee to audit the deaths in the Sheriff’s Department’s custody over the last 15 years. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Assembly members Brian Maienschein, Lorena Gonzalez and Chris Ward, all from San Diego, and Akilah Weber of La Mesa and Tasha Boerner-Horvath of Encinitas want an independent evaluation of the department’s practices. Their interests include what the Sheriff’s Department has done to mitigate inmate deaths, whether people of color were disproportionately likely to die while in custody and how much the county has paid to resolve legal complaints related to deaths.

The department has vowed to cooperate with the audit. Here’s hoping Sheriff Bill Gore does fully cooperate and the audit offers a thorough accounting that leads to policy changes and fewer deaths.