Supervisor Bruce Nestande charged Thursday that a proposal by the Orange County Grand Jury to transfer responsibility for jail health services to the Sheriff's Department would give the sheriff more authority than any other such official in the state in dealing with inmate health issues, heightening the possibilities for conflicts of interest.
Nestande was highly critical of the grand jury's report and raised the issue of possible bias on the part of the jury's criminal justice committee chairman, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy.
"I think it raises as many questions as it seemingly answers," said Nestande of the report, released Wednesday, which advises transferring responsibility for inmate medical and mental health care from the county Health Care Agency to the sheriff, who runs the jail. The grand jury said the transfer would eliminate conflicts in management between the two agencies and boost employee morale.
Points to Other Counties
The grand jury also pointed out that jail medical teams in San Diego, Ventura and Los Angeles counties have for many years reported to the sheriff, with a great deal of success.
But Nestande said Thursday that the jury should have pointed out that all three of those counties have independent coroner's offices, while in Orange County, Brad Gates is both sheriff and coroner.
An independent coroner's office might guard against conflicts of interest that could exist when the sheriff, keeper of the jail, is in charge of jail medical services, particularly in the case of an inmate death or "an incident involving a deputy," Nestande suggested.
"I have complete confidence in the integrity of the sheriff, but we still have a lot of conflict laws in America, notwithstanding people's integrity," Nestande said.
Moreover, he added, the sheriffs in Los Angeles and San Diego counties are not responsible for jail mental health services. "Our grand jury's conclusion would create a system entirely unlike any in the state right now," he said.
Nestande was also critical of criminal justice committee chairman Linda J. Linder's background as a former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. Linder worked both in the county jails and on patrol between 1977 and 1983.
"I'm not for a moment attacking anyone's integrity," he said. "The only thing I'm suggesting is that when one comes from the profession, so to speak, there's a natural bias to go ahead and want to have these kinds of consolidations (of departments) for ease of operations . . . . It's kind of a natural train of thought, I think. So I distinguish that kind of inquiry, headed by a person that's been in a sheriff's office, versus our own independent auditor that really has no ax to grind."
The Board of Supervisors has hired Bonnie C. Norman, former head of jail medical services for Los Angeles County, to study medical services problems in the Orange County Jail and make recommendations on how to deal with them.
Grand jury foreman Thomas Kehoe said Thursday that he considers Linder's professional background an asset. "There again, it's a perceived situation," Kehoe said of the many questions about conflicts of interest that have been raised by the jury's report.
Linder said eight grand jurors toured Los Angeles County's jail medical facilities before the jury's recommendations were formulated. "I'm only one of 19 (jurors) and it takes an awful lot of us to pass a report. I don't do anything on my own, just as no one else on this grand jury does," she said.
Both Linder and Kehoe again played down concerns about conflicts of interest in having the sheriff oversee medical services. "Nothing slips through the cracks, especially in law enforcement," Linder said. "Everybody's watching them. That's what you see in the news media every day."
Nestande also expressed doubts that the Board of Supervisors would move to transfer inmate mental health services to the Sheriff's Department because the county would apparently have to forfeit $457,000 a year it receives in state mental health funds if the services are not provided by the Health Care Agency.
"I think they should have articulated all these issues that are simply important distinctions, rather than having the grand jury say, you ought to go ahead and do this, without qualification at all," he said. "They ought to have spelled all this out."