The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office has implemented about a quarter of the more than 600 reforms identified in a 2016 plan to improve its jail system, according to a report received Oct. 17 by the county Board of Supervisors from an independent oversight body. 

The board heard about reforms to the jail system from Julie Ruhlin, a representative with the county’s Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring, known as OCLEM, as well as staff from the county executive’s office and the Sheriff’s Office. Some of the reforms involve reducing suicide risks, improving access to health care, and ensuring inmates have reliable ways to file complaints. 

Deputy County Executive Martha Wapenski also announced a new website to keep the public informed about the ongoing reform efforts, sccgov.org/jailreforms

The presentation outlined other initiatives within the Sheriff’s Office, such as implementing a new jail monitoring system, increasing functionality of tablets assigned to inmates, and the results of a survey of incarcerated women. 

In addition to addressing constitutional issues that had been identified in two separate federal consent decrees, which established federal monitors for the jail system, the reform efforts are helping to inform the planning around building a new jail facility. 

Of the 623 recommendations made in 2016, OCLEM deemed 173 complete or no longer necessary, including 80 in its most current report. It was the fifth audit OCLEM has completed. The audit included 28 reforms that were completed and 52 that were recommended for removal from the list because they were either too broad, involved outdated advisory boards, or had been advanced through other means, such as improved access to information through federal court monitors. 

That leaves 450 of the recommendations to be implemented, or about 73%. All are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2024. 

Supervisor Joe Simitian asked for the new website to include information about military equipment being used by the Sheriff’s Office, surveillance developments and information about body-worn cameras. 

Supervisors Sylvia Arenas and Cindy Chavez both said that they wanted future updates to include a way to categorize the reforms by level of priority or urgency, which county Chief Operating Officer Greta Hansen agreed to implement. 

Arenas also noted the low response rate of 12% in the survey of incarcerated women. 

“We really need to make sure that that response rate and that participation level is a lot higher before I think we start interpreting what those responses mean,” Arenas said. 

She recommended increasing offerings of incentives like commissary credit or gift cards to participants and taking advantage of group settings when they are organized.  

Some of the reforms around suicide prevention involve requiring a mental health screening for all inmates during intake, a better monitoring system and having a clinician review each case to determine length of treatment, rather than having required minimums or maximums. 

Jail cells designed to prevent suicide at Elmwood Correctional Facility are in construction, with completion scheduled for June. 

Chavez said she could see that progress was being made but said that it was relative to the low status quo that existed when federal monitors were appointed. 

“I think it’s really a reflection of how very broken we were, and having been around at that time, just recognizing that when you’re changing institutions it takes a long time and it takes perhaps longer than it should,” said Chavez. 

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