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The Jury is In

The 2017/18 Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury tackled dogs, jail and noncompliance

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The Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury released 11 reports in the last two weeks that delved into subjects as diverse as jail safety, animal control, water quality and the very future of Humboldt County. Every year the HCCGJ conducts lengthy and thorough investigations into issues related to county government; the agencies or departments identified in those investigations are mandated to respond and describe their plans for change. Past investigations have explored child welfare, county pensions and rural policing. An update on eight of these reports from the 2016/2017 grand jury was included as part of this year's "Compliance and Continuity" report.

According to the report, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors and the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office often failed to meet penal code requirements to respond to recommendations within 90 days and to establish time frames in which changes would be implemented. Three reports from the 2016/2017 grand jury yielded a great deal of noncompliant responses from the board and the sheriff's office. These included a recommendation that the sheriff-coroner demand better working conditions at the coroner's office (HCSO did not include a time frame for discussion, meaning it was noncompliant), a recommendation that the sheriff's office review and revamp its procedures related to the treatment of mentally ill inmates, a recommendation that the jail employ a mental health staff member to be available 24/7 (no time frame), making improvements to the HCSO Garberville substation (no time frame). The HCCGJ also recommended that "county and city governments engage in a planning process to address issues of safety as well as the short-and long-term maintenance needs of its law enforcement facilities." The board of supervisors agreed to do this but did not set a time frame in which to do it, making it noncompliant. The sheriff's office responded that the issue needed further analysis. The Fortuna Police Department did not respond at all.

Asked for comment, county spokesperson Sean Quincey said they were "currently reviewing all of the reports it has issued and look forward to providing our responses, and taking any necessary action thereafter." Humboldt County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Samantha Karges said the office would not comment on any of the reports prior to the 90 days required for response to the grand jury.

While these issues seem dry on paper, they are set against the backdrop of some real and dramatic challenges for law enforcement in Humboldt County. The sheriff's office only recently altered its policy to comply with grand jury recommendations that it proactively offer extended transportation assistance to indigent clients arrested more than 25 miles away from the jail, a recommendation triggered by the 2014 murder of Father Eric Freed by a Southern Humboldt man who was released from jail in the middle of the night. Also in 2014, a homeless poet and artist, Daren Borges, died in a holding cell from a methamphetamine overdose. Borges had been suffering from schizophrenia. In 2017, a federal jury found that jail staff had failed to follow proper procedure when they booked Borges into the facility after he'd been arrested for public intoxication.

In this year's inspection of local jails and facilities, the HCCGJ found that many problems identified in previous annual inspections remain, and some have gotten worse.

According to the grand jury's analysis of the jail, the facility's culture has undergone a major transformation in the past 10 years due to the 2011 passage of Assembly Bill 109 and the subsequent California Public Safety Realignment Act, as well as propositions 47 and 57, approved in 2014 and 2016, respectively. The result of this legislation was to move some lower-level offenders to county jails rather than state prisons. Although correlation does not always mean causation, realignment efforts have correlated with a sharp spike in violence in the Humboldt County jail. Fights between inmates doubled between 2012 and 2017. Assaults on inmates have been steadily rising, from 42 in 2009 to a high of 106 in 2016. And assaults on staff have increased eightfold, from steady single-digit numbers between 2009 and 2014 to a high of 39 in 2015. Retention of correctional officers is a major issue, with more than 13 full-time positions unfilled and remaining staff working mandatory overtime.

"Except for Trinity and Del Norte counties, Humboldt County has the lowest pay scale in California and is finding it difficult to recruit and hire correctional deputies," the report states. The grand jury recommends raising the entry level salaries for correctional officers "to achieve competitiveness with other counties of similar size." An analysis of the pay scale for correctional officers was recommended last year as well.

The mental health of inmates was discussed as a major challenge, with one staff member saying that well over half of the population was struggling with some type of mental illness. Grand jury investigators interviewed medical and mental health professionals as well as correctional officers who said the jail would benefit from round-the-clock mental health care, as was recommended by the grand jury last year. Interviewees suggested that the Department of Health and Human Services expand its current contract with the California Forensic Medical Group to include mental health staffing, which could result in more competitive wages for personnel. Lack of aftercare and follow up for inmates struggling with mental health issues, as well as co-occuring disorders such as substance abuse, were also cited as a cause of concern.

The news was not all bad: The grand jury commended the HCSO for its efforts in expanding and "greatly improving educational and post release employment opportunities." In 2017 the jail won a Challenge Award, the highest of Correctional Facility Educational awards.

Other items that reappeared from previous years included infrastructure improvement to the Garberville Sheriff's Office substation and the county coroner's office. The Garberville substation is "in disrepair and in need of major renovation." The report notes that the ventilation system in the coroner's office is outdated and "inadequate for the work performed," especially in the autopsy room. Water leaks from old pipes have made some areas of the coroner's office unusable and "every available space is in use for storage, except for a small room used for counseling grieving families."

Other reports from the 2017/2018 grand jury include an investigation into the pollution of Clam and Luffenholtz beaches, finding that there are a number of potential causes. The Humboldt County Public Health Laboratory is working to identify the cause, and the HCCGJ recommends they apply for grants to aid their work. The grand jury also found that the Humboldt County Courthouse has an inadequate emergency evacuation plan, recommending this be addressed. An examination of "Humboldt County's future" finds that the county's general plan is lacking actionable assignments and that, in general, the county "lacks vision." In tiny Trinidad, the jury found, a boom in vacation rentals has led to conflict between neighbors and the erosion of local institutions and volunteerism. The Humboldt Bay Waterfront Trail, while a benefit to our communities, has numerous safety issues that need to be addressed. Measure Z, approved in 2014, was voted in by taxpayers with the understanding that it would be subject to independent annual audits but, to date, no such audits have taken place.

In the report "Humboldt - We Have a Problem, But More Special Education Is Not the Answer," the jury found that schools are placing disproportionate numbers of Native American, Hispanic and foster youth — who may not have disabilities — into special education. Seventeen percent of Humboldt County school-age children are in special education classes, the highest rate in the state. This designation can lead to a "lifelong disadvantage." The jury acknowledged that educational staff are overworked, underpaid and in some instances may not have the training necessary to distinguish true disability from adverse conditions or language barriers, but cautioned that if this trend continues it may lead to intervention from the Office of Civil Rights. Among the jury's recommendations are a team training for school administrators and a review of Individualized Educational Plans.

Finally, a report on the state of animal control titled "Dogs on the Run" begins with a list of tragic vignettes, including a small child who was bitten on the face at a local park and a case where a dog jumped through a screened window into a home, attacking a homeowner's cat. The homeowner was bitten and the cat had to be euthanized. In both cases the dogs had histories of attacks. The grand jury found that city and county animal control divisions are understaffed and have faulty communication across jurisdictions. Animal codes that designate dogs as "vicious" or "potentially dangerous" are outdated in many jurisdictions, putting the public at risk. The jury recommended updating codes for some jurisdictions, establishing a database of dangerous dogs across different agencies and also a public website that would identify dogs with bite histories to Humboldt County residents.

A full list of reports can be found at https://humboldtgov.org/510/Grand-Jury. Responses from the county departments investigated in the reports are due in 90 days and will also be available on the county website.

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or linda@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.

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