California Bill Improving Transparency for In-Custody Deaths Signed Into Law

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California Bill Improving Transparency for In-Custody Deaths Signed Into Law

A California Department of Corrections officer speaks to inmates at Chino State Prison in Chino, Calif., on Dec. 10, 2010. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

10/12/2023

Updated: 12/30/2023

California State detention centers, including prisons and county jails, will face new regulations that expand the board overseeing operations and allow public access to records related to deaths in such facilities, following California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signing of Senate Bill 519 on Oct. 4.
“The number of in-custody deaths in recent years has been alarming, and SB 519 is an effort to try to reduce these numbers,” California state Senate President Pro-Tempore Toni G. Atkins, a Democrat and author of the bill, wrote in an Oct. 10 email to The Epoch Times. “The new law will help increase oversight and provide state-level recommendations for improvement on outcomes.”
Six jails across the state set records for in-custody deaths in 2022 after 156 occurrences in 2020, according to the latest Department of Justice statistics. San Diego County has come under scrutiny for a significant spike over the past two years, with one inmate dying on average every month.
Family members and activists rallied at the San Diego Central Jail on multiple occasions this year demanding safer conditions.
Several lawsuits filed in 2023 allege that the facility is responsible for the wrongful death of their loved ones. The family of 31-year-old Leonel Villasenor filed a claim in September in federal court accusing jailers of allowing and benefitting from illegal drug sales after Mr. Villasenor was found dead of an overdose of fentanyl and methamphetamine while in custody last year.
With some raising questions about the nature of deaths that occurred in detention facilities and the lack of access to information about investigations—as existing law restricts public inspection of documents and evidence—the author said the new law addresses these concerns.
“Families of people who have died in custody and who have been asking for more accountability deserve answers,” Ms. Atkins said. “This law will help provide clarity and transparency with the goal of preventing further deaths from occurring.”
Records made available must represent what was presented for review to a district attorney, including investigative reports, interview transcripts and recordings, autopsy reports, and video and photographic evidence.
If the death occurred at the hands of a corrections officer, records must include whether such actions were consistent with law and policy and if discipline or administrative action was ultimately taken.
Redactions are only permitted to remove personal data or information and preserve the anonymity of witnesses, whistleblowers, complainants, and victims.
The new law also creates the position of director of in-custody death review under the Board of State and Community Corrections. The position is to be filled for a six-year term by gubernatorial appointment, subject to state Senate confirmation.
The director would be tasked with reviewing any deaths that occur in facilities and making specific recommendations—including changes to practices, policies, and procedures—to respective officials and administrators.
Operating independently of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the 13-member state board employs licensed medical and behavioral health professionals to establish and implement standards for detention facilities and to review the delivery of services.
Its mission includes addressing gang violence and promoting safe conditions in such detention centers.
The bill’s author said a renewed focus on public safety is needed given the lack of progress made in prior years.
“Local detention centers have unfortunately been slow to address internal issues and in many cases are unresponsive, especially as it relates to the alarming increase in deaths of persons in custody,” Ms. Atkins wrote in legislative analyses. “This is a growing problem not only here in San Diego County, but at other detention facilities around the state. It’s critical to have more oversight and accountability.”
Supporters agreed that additional oversight will prove beneficial, as new regulations restore authority to local supervisorial boards, with emphasis given to the concerns about deaths occurring in San Diego County.
“Many local governments are struggling with how to grapple with this crisis and the public is frustrated with the lack of accountability, the pace of progress, and sometimes, very simply, the lack of answers,” Californians for Safety and Justice—a nonprofit group dedicated to reducing incarceration and breaking cycles of crime—wrote to lawmakers earlier this year. “SB 519 will help increase the public’s understanding in order to promote better local policy decisions that will help save lives of those in custody and help to hold the [San Diego] Sheriff’s Department accountable to the public.”
Opponents argued that the bill could allow for political trends to impact correctional policies and that elements of the new law are redundant.
“We also understand and share the desire to reduce deaths in custody, but this bill conditions the additional contemplated reviews on the request of the Governor, the Legislature, or boards of supervisors,” the California State Sheriffs’ Association wrote in the legislative analysis. “We fear this construct will fall victim to political whim, resulting in invasive, burdensome, and duplicative investigations.”
The new law will take effect July 1, 2024.
Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

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Travis Gillmore is an avid reader and journalism connoisseur based in California covering finance, politics, the State Capitol, and breaking news for The Epoch Times.

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