Jail-Control Fight Leaves Scars in Another County Detention System

After a hard-fought battle, Santa Clara County wrenched control of its jails from the sheriff. How is it working? Opinions are varied.

The Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; Jan 28, 1990;


(Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1990 all Rights reserved)

One year after seizing control of the jails from the sheriff, county political leaders here are convinced that their decision to establish a new Department of Correction was the right one to bring down high jail costs and institute new inmate rehabilitation programs.

They believe they will save $62 million over 10 years for the taxpayers of Santa Clara County and that their concept of "direct supervision" of jail inmates and new drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs will help beat back a rising crime rate.

"It is doing what I envisioned that it should be doing," Susanne Wilson, a veteran member of the County Board of Supervisors, said in a recent interview at City Hall, reflecting on her role in championing the board's fight to manage the jails.

"It is a responsible agency. It's more economical. And it's a safer and cheaper place for our prisoners."

In late 1988, Santa Clara County became the only large county in California to switch from a jail system traditionally run by the Sheriff's Department to one managed, operated and controlled by civilian authorities. (Much smaller Madera and Napa counties already had switched to a jail system separate from the sheriff.)

Now, that dramatic shift in power is under serious consideration by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, which has toured the new jail system here and discussed in detail the ramifications of stripping the jails from the Sheriff's Department.

But one of the key lessons learned from the long struggle in Santa Clara County is that such a power shift can leave a tremendous amount of ill feelings and a good measure of political blood on the floor.

Robert Winter, sheriff in Santa Clara County for more than a decade, abruptly stepped down in August after his jails were cut out from underneath him. He now is weighing a campaign for a seat on the same Board of Supervisors that stole his thunder.

Many rank-and-file deputy sheriffs, some of them forced to work in the new jail system until there are openings on sheriff's patrol assignments, fear that a major jailhouse riot or, worse yet, an officer's death lies in the near future. Many deputies openly criticize the new correctional officers as undertrained and note that last year criminal charges were filed against half a dozen of them.

"If something major happens, people are going to get hurt very, very badly," said Deputy Ronald Levine, who filed one of the many lawsuits over the jail issue and who now, in between his work shifts at the jail, is nurturing his own political ambitions.

"That is simply because they are not that well-trained," he said of the correctional officers. "They don't have the skills. They don't have the training. And many of them are lazy."

The local Deputy Sheriff's Assn. fought the change with three-quarters of a million dollars it had saved to buy a new headquarters building. The deputy's association leadership today is left frustrated and angry, and is investigating the backgrounds of the Board of Supervisors, looking for any embarrassing skeletons to exact some political revenge.

Like Levine, the equally bitter Sgt. Tom Beck, a sworn deputy for 30 years and outgoing president of the deputy's association, said:

"There's a difference between getting angry and getting even. And, if I can prove certain things, I'll do it."

Just as San Diego County Sheriff John Duffy has sparred openly with the Board of Supervisors, Sheriff Winter of Santa Clara County never backed down from a fight.

Now selling real estate in the south valley town of Gilroy, Winter recalled the 1978 election, when he first ran as a lieutenant and still managed to defeat the incumbent sheriff with 59% of the vote.

Once in office, he said, the public backed him each year when he complained that the Board of Supervisors was not allocating enough money to his department to properly staff the crowded jails.

"The question was, did we want a strong sheriff or a submissive one?" said Winter, a gray-haired, 59-year-old conservative. "That was the deciding issue."

While Winter was projecting the strong-sheriff image, the board saw him as a poor administrator unable to manage a budget. Board members were repeatedly upset with his cost overruns, much of them spent in overtime for jail deputies. One jail deputy earned more than $100,000 in a single year, they said.

According to the board, Winter overran his jail budget by more than $7.7 million during four consecutive years in the 1980s, and, in 1987 alone, his $67-million budget was overspent by $3.5 million. And, while the board was making cuts in other county services and programs, the sheriff's budget for running the jails was increasing by 98%, although the jail population rose only 34%.

Because of the division of power in government, board members have limited authority, beyond setting the size of the budget, to oversee the way a sheriff manages his departments. According to the way county governments are set up, the elected boards approve the size of the sheriff's budget, but the elected sheriff decides how that money is spent.

There were political omens too. Although Winter was seen as a popular figure at the polls, the board felt it was being cast in a dark light every time it attacked his management style.

"Bob Winter looked more like a sheriff than anyone I ever saw," said Supervisor Wilson. "He was tall, with wavy hair and guns on his hips. He was a good old boy.

"He had good political skills, but he never managed a budget. He lacked administrative skills. Each year he doubled his overruns. The system was out of control."

Supervisor Zoe Lofgren, equally frustrated by the cost overruns, was slowly won over to Wilson's side, convinced that the board should invoke its powers to set up its own private corrections department.

Lofgren said the board was then under a court order to ease jail crowding. There were pressures to implement more humane conditions for inmates. And, because the county was building new jail facilities anyway, she was convinced that a civilian Department of Correction was the best way to go.

That kind of ambitious thinking fits her political style, she said. In her office hangs a portrait of Albert Einstein, with the caption: "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Bucking the time-honored tradition of letting elected sheriffs run the jails, she said, was an innovative idea, and there was always a chance that even repeat offenders could be rehabilitated.

"While you've got those guys locked up, why not try to turn them around?" she said.

Ron Diridon was the least optimistic of the supervisors about embracing a separate corrections department. He studied other counties in the nation that tried a corrections system separate from the sheriff, and he worried that the cost would be too great if it failed.

But he also understood that Winter and the board could not continue taking punches at each other and still provide good government.

"If Bob Winter had had the personality that would have allowed him to work with the board, the board members never would have found the need to take the jails away from him," he said.

Beck, president of the deputy's association during the jail fight, said the board's arguments were "a lot of bunk." He said Winter was never given enough money in the first place to run the jails, so of course he would have to authorize overtime and come in over budget.

"It's like if the board hired you to drive a truck to go to New York, but only gave you enough gas to get to Chicago," he said. "Does that mean you're a bad driver?"

When the board members voted to create a Department of Correction, they told the public that most of the $62 million in savings would come from lower salaries for new correctional officers and reduced training costs.

Under the new system, correctional officers undergo a seven-week training course, as contrasted with 18 weeks for deputies, and they are paid a lower entry-level annual salary of about $30,000, versus about $41,000 for starting deputy sheriffs.

According to county figures, $8 million has been saved already under the new department, and the county should have saved $10.4 million by next June. The current jail budget is about $80 million.

The deputy's association did not buy the cost-savings arguments, and the group gathered 77,750 signatures to place an initiative on the 1988 ballot, asking that the county charter specifically declare that only the elected sheriff can run the jails.

The board answered by placing its own advisory initiative on the same ballot, asking voters whether they supported a Department of Correction. Then politics took its course.

The board labelled its initiative Measure A. The board then added four other less significant measures on the ballot, and then came the deputy's association proposal, Measure F.

Supervisor Wilson said she helped raise $250,000, against the $750,000 that the deputy's association took from its building fund to fight the Department of Correction. While the proponents of Measure A were saying that Sheriff Winter was spending too much money, the deputy's association never forced the board to fully justify how it would save the $62 million, and to this day does not believe the savings are real.

With radio, television and newspaper advertisements in full swing, the most popular refrain against the deputy's association proposal, still being heard with laughs in Santa Clara County, was simply, "F no."

"I hope it was good politics," said Lofgren, reflecting on the bitter election. "I think we were straight with the voters."

Beck, the deputy's association president, said his group was far too naive in trying to defeat the politically savvy board members. If he had it to do over again, he said, "I would not play fair. I would go for the throat like they do."

Lawsuits followed, and the state Supreme Court ruled in November, 1988, that the board could take over the jails. By January, when Winter formally turned the jail key over to newly hired Department of Correction Director Frank Hall, about $300,000 in legal fees for both sides had been borne by the taxpayers. Eighteen months of debate, campaigning and lawsuits were over. All that was left were bruised egos.

Winter left office, and the board appointed an interim sheriff to serve the rest of his term. Without the jails, which had been two-thirds of Winter's domain, the new sheriff's responsibilities cover only the unincorporated areas of the county and law enforcement services for some contract cities.

"We had supported so many of the board members in the past, and they were our friends," said Beck. "But they wanted Bob Winter so bad that they were willing to step on their friends."

Wilson sympathized with the hard feelings at the deputy's association. But she alludes to the political maxim that "every person has to make their own decision. And then live with it."

After years running state correctional systems in Massachusetts, Maryland and New York, Frank Hall moved in to Sheriff Winter's old office in San Jose. As the first director of the Department of Correction, he took control of a jail system that included two new detention facilities built in the aftermath of the lawsuits over crowding.

Hall today has control of five jails with about 5,000 inmate beds, compared to seven jails and 4,269 inmates, as of last Wednesday, in San Diego County.

Hall also inherited a good portion of the sheriff's deputies still working in the jails, and today he supervises a correctional staff of 800 workers, including about 200 sworn deputies who have yet to be phased back into sheriff's patrol duties.

He also implemented a direct supervision concept, with correctional officers overseeing the jail by mingling with inmates, rather than the traditional prison system of guards watching inmates from behind thick glass windows in steel-reinforced control rooms.

He has brought local self-help agencies into the jails to work with inmates in drug and alcohol rehabilitation projects. He has set up incentive programs for inmates who with good conduct can earn perks such as extra candy bars and the right to select the evening videocassette tape.

"I just finished 20 employee interviews, and no one mentioned poor morale," he said. "There's a whole new atmosphere here. We're trying to provide some new direction, some new leadership."

Pat Doyle, a deputy sheriff for 18 years, is one of the remaining deputies still assigned to the jails. Once skeptical of direct supervision, he now is a believer.

"Really, it does work," Doyle said. "We stopped being jailers and became inmate managers. And, if rehabilitation can happen, it will happen here."

Several inmates in one of the drug programs, who have marked time under both Winter and Hall, were grateful for the chance to improve their lives. "I've been in prison seven times already," said 38-year-old Earl Soto, jailed now for possession of cocaine. "But, if I'd had this program before and this setting, maybe I wouldn't be back again."

The deputy's association leadership doesn't believe for a second that county inmates are really being turned around. "That's hogwash," said Beck.

But Hall and his staff said it was a worthy aim of the new corrections officers to at least try to change the lives of criminals. "I think we're making some real strides here," said David Gonzales, an assistant director of the new Department of Correction.

Winter and Beck scoff at such optimism. They said that trying to rehabilitate county inmates, many of them headed for state prison, is a hopeless task, particularly since the average inmate spends only four months in the county system.

Beck added that many of the correctional officers, who have been ridiculed as "Smurfs" because of their new blue uniforms, are learning fast that a jailhouse drug program doesn't always save souls.

"They do not like working for Mr. Hall," Beck said. "Most of them don't care to work there. They don't care much for his operation."

Beck and Winter noted that criminal charges were brought against some of the new correctional officers last year. One officer was charged with two felony counts of assaulting an inmate.

Furthermore, Winter is skeptical that the board really will save the $62 million.

"That's a pie-in-the sky figure," he said. "The board directed their controller to come up with a figure, and he dreamed one up."

But Supervisors Wilson and Lofgren insisted the savings are real. "Our auditors didn't make this stuff up," said Lofgren. "We're tracking it, and we'll issue yearly report cards to the voters."

But the board and Hall and others backing the civilian-run jail system stop short of pushing their system on other counties with similar problems, such as San Diego.

"We did it here because it worked for us," Hall said. "We're proud of our system. But I'm not going to go demand everyone else go to a Department of Correction."


San Diego County Sheriff's Department

Number of jails 7
Number of inmates * 4,269
Percentage of rated capacity 180%
1989-90 Jail budget $52.5 million
Sheriff's deputies assigned to 427 jails
Correctional officers 120

Sheriff's deputies $25,238
Correctional officers $20,221

Santa Clara County Department of Correction

Number of jails 5
Number of inmates approx. 5,000
Percentage of rated capacity 90%
1989-90 Jail budget $80 million
Sheriff's deputies assigned to 200 jails
Correctional officers 600
Sheriff's deputies $40,000
Correctional officers $30,000

* on Wednesday (1/24/90) Source: The counties.

PHOTO: Robert Winter quit as sheriff after losing control of jails.; PHOTO: Veteran Santa Clara County Supervisor Susanne Wilson, who championed the board's fight for a Department of Correction.; PHOTO: Sheriff's Deputy Ronald Levine, who filed a lawsuit over the jail issue, with badges worn by deputies, at left, and corrections officers.; PHOTO: Department of Correction Director Frank Hall took control of the Santa Clara County jail system from the sheriff, becoming the first civilian detention chief.; PHOTO: Santa Clara County Supervisor Zoe Lofgren was slowly won over and then became convinced that a civilian Department of Correction was the best way to go.; TABLE: COUNTY CORRECTIONS COMPARISON

Sub Title:  [San Diego County Edition]
Start Page:  1
ISSN:  04583035
Dateline:  SAN JOSE

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