Judge outlines proposal for major changes to Santa Clara County Jail system

For months there’s been a widening rift between the Santa Clara Sheriff and the commission investigating the jail system that the sheriff oversees.  The distrust and disillusionment by both sides was on full display Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors’ meeting.

The tempest surrounding the sheriff began with an inmate’s beating death and gained new life from a jail brawl last month.

Now, the head of the commission investigating these events made it clear, change can't come until Sheriff Laurie Smith is gone.

"Continued supervision of the jails by the sheriff is not in the best interest of the inmates, the correctional officers, or the community,” said Judge LaDoris Cordell, commission chairwoman.

Judge Cordell laid out a careful case for making major changes to the Santa Clara County jail system.

Over 35 minutes, she told the county supervisors the jail house beating death of inmate Michael Tyree last summer created a crisis that should cost Sheriff Laurie Smith control of the jail system.

Some former inmates testified they too had been abused. One said he was beaten so bad that he both defecated and urinated himself and that his hand was broken.

Cordell said months of investigation led her to liken the system to an ill-fated plane heading for a crash with the sheriff at the controls.

"On this long descent, there was a pilot who was either indifferent or incompetent, or a combination of both, who did not realize this plane was headed to crash and we believe that's what happened with the jails,” said Cordell.

The Blue Ribbon Commission proposes four immediate steps to repair the problem-plagued jail system.

First, they’d create an office of an inspector general with 24-7 access and investigatory power. They would also overhaul a “broken" grievance and complaint system for inmates. Third, they would create more transparency and fairness in the officer disciplinary system. Lastly, they would reform administration of the inmate’s welfare fund.

"While you might repair the jails, and come up with a new and better operation, you still have a poor pilot, said Cordell. “And the pilot, whoever runs the jails, needs to be replaced."

Sheriff Smith sat for part of the grilling, and then stood before the cameras to defend her handling of the jail, and its problems.

"We brought in the consultants including the mental health experts and the jail experts to look at everything we're doing within the jail to make recommendations so that started quite a while ago,” said Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith.

When asked by a reporter if she thought there needed to be a change in the culture now, Smith answered, “You know, I think that there's improvements we can make everywhere.”

Unfortunately for Smith, a procession of public speakers concluded the first improvement should be finding her replacement.

"True culture change, if that is really what we desire, requires new leadership,” concluded Ron Hansen with PACT (People Acting in Community Together).