by Photo by Sarah Berjan

Less than a week after the California State Auditor released a scathing report of in-custody deaths in San Diego County jails, local religious leaders and activists made a public request on Tuesday for an in-depth analysis by race and ethnicity. 

The request comes from the state auditor who released a 126-page report detailing the high number of fatalities in San Diego County Jails. On the same day of the report and 10 months before his term expired, San Diego County Sherrif Bill Gore retired. 

Over the past 15 years, the San Diego County jail has recorded the highest inmate mortality rates throughout California. There are 185 recorded fatalities between 2006 and 2020 in all seven detention centers it oversees, including one in Chula Vista. 

“Were they African American? Were they Latino?” Shane Harris, president of the People’s Association of Justice Advocates, a nonprofit that fights for social justice asked during the press conference. “We believe it's important that we not only have a picture of the problem but that we take a deeper look at the equity issues."

Harris, alongside Lori Saldana, who served three terms in the California Assembly, local activists and religious leaders signed a joint letter requesting a breakdown of race and ethnicity of in-custody jail deaths. The letter was addressed to Acting Sheriff Kelly Martinez, county Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher, and Paul Parker, executive officer of the county Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board.

In addition to the demographic information, a request of how many deceased inmates passed while awaiting trial. Harris said that without the demographics such as race and ethnicity, “we cannot have an analysis of the full picture of our criminal justice system." 

“We know that at alarming rates, African Americans and people of color end up in jail. If they don't get the right to a speedy trial, if they don't have the right to go before a judge, then they won't have the right to fight for their potential innocence. When they get to county jails, they are facing a jungle in which they don't know if they will last before they ever see a judge, so something is significantly wrong with our criminal justice system,” Harris said. 

The San Diego-area regional law enforcement agency said that “they take the findings of the audit seriously” and are “taking action” to implement its call for systemic change. According to Saldana, the only organization in California that can hold the sheriff accountable is the legislature and Attorney General Rob Bonta. 

Yusef Miller of the North County Equity and Justice Coalition, the Rev. L.E. Sharp, and Pastor Jody Crawford also signed the letter. 

“What we're here today is to express our frustration that now we're at a state-level audit. We want to see something fruitful come from it. We want Attorney General Rob Bonta, and we want the governor to get involved to ensure that these reforms take place to save lives in custody,” Miller said. 

According to the report, in the most recent three years from 2018 through 2020, the percentage of deaths of Black individuals in the Sheriff’s Department’s custody was disproportionately higher than their overall composition of the jail population. White individuals died at proportionally higher rates in 2007, 2009 through 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2020. In 2006, 2008, and 2015, the percentage of deaths among Hispanic individuals exceeded their population percentage. 

There are plans to add more demographic information to records such as gender and gender identity. Parker said he looks forward to responding to the request. 

Harris estimates the public request will take about three months to complete. 

“We've ended the death penalty, but in San Diego County, the death penalty is still working and it's working in the jails,” Miller said. “We know this audit report will have ripple effects throughout the entire state, and where we're asking and hoping that other parts of the county and other parts of the state will also require an audit of their system so they can have the same data. 

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