Embattled Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens announced Tuesday she will not seek another term and plans to retire.
Her announcement came hours after the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California called for her resignation upon releasing a two-year study that found “violent, abusive and unhealthy conditions in Orange County’s jails system, and a record of denial and indifference by the officials in charge, most notably Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.”
According to the ACLU, the 108-page report was the result of more than 120 interviews with current and former inmates in Orange County lockups and a review of the recommendations of seven county grand juries over the last decade.
“The OC Sheriff’s Department and its jails have been fraught with controversy, allegations of corruption and abuse. This isn’t a recent find,” said Esther Lim, director of the ACLU SoCal Jails Project. “It is clear and obvious that the department and the jails need proper oversight.”
The sheriff issued a statement faulting the ACLU for relying on testimonials from current and former inmates.
“While inmates certainly have a perspective to offer on our jail system, the failure to include the perspective of law enforcement has resulted in a report that only tells one side of the story,” according to the statement, which emphasized that multiple other regulatory agencies, and the Orange County Health Care Agency, found the five jail facilities met state and federal standards.
Tom Dominguez, president of the union that represents deputy sheriffs, also disagreed with ACLU.
“Hearing inmates complain about jail conditions is very common,” he said. “There is nothing pleasant about being incarcerated. While we realize that the ACLU is entitled to their opinion and perception of the jail conditions, we do not agree with many of the characterizations portrayed by the inmates interviewed for the report. Since the passage of AB-109, the realignment assembly bill, these inmates are no longer housed in the jails we once knew. Instead, they are housed in a state prison environment run in an aging county jail system.”
Homeland Security officials, however, criticized the jails in March, saying federal investigators found multiple problems such as inmates being served spoiled meat — which Hutchens denied — and unsanitary conditions. The ACLU referred to that report, noting that Homeland Security officials found “mildewed shower stalls and refuse in cells; broken phones; faulty grievance procedures; and an inadequate classification system.”
Hutchens was appointed sheriff by the Board of Supervisors in June of 2010 following the resignation of Sheriff Mike Carona, who was convicted of witness tampering in 2009.
Hutchens was praised for righting the ship following the corruption trial of her predecessor and for managing the department despite significant budget cutbacks necessitated by the Great Recession.
One major success Hutchens had was bridging those budget gaps with a “beds for feds” program that rented out space for immigration detainees. The Board of Supervisors last month voted to add 120 beds to rent to the federal government after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement canceled its contract with the city of Santa Ana.
But in recent years, her department has been rocked by allegations that first surfaced in the case of Scott Dekraai — the worst mass killer in the county’s history — that her deputies had been running a confidential informant program in the jails that led to violations of some inmates’ constitutional rights.
According to Dekraai’s attorney, Hutchens is expected to be called to testify in a third round of evidentiary hearings in the Dekraai case when they resume after the Fourth of July break. Dekraai is seeking to have the death penalty dismissed against him by Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who has recused Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office from the case and has been critical of Hutchens’ past comments regarding the breadth of an informant program.
The ACLU’s report describes “an environment of violence, abuse, inadequate medical care, persistent overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions and poor training and supervision for custody staff, among other violations of state regulations and the U.S. Constitution,” in the county’s five jails.
Despite years of complaints about the jail system, the sheriff and the Board of Supervisors have “turned a blind eye to this abuse and misconduct,” and no deputy has ever been formally charged in an incident of prisoner abuse, according to the civil rights agency, which said its investigation showed that “the need for oversight that is neutral and objective is profound.”
The ACLU said the Board of Supervisors should establish an independent jails review authority to investigate “the culture of violence and abuse” in Orange County’s lockups. More than half the inmates in Orange County’s jails, on average, are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime but cannot afford to post bail, according to the agency.
The report notes that in 2016, the county supervisors approved a new three-year contract for deputies that included an 8.8 percent pay raise, at a cost to taxpayers of $62 million.
Hutchens started her law enforcement career with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 1976. She worked her way up the ranks to Division Chief for the Office of Homeland Security.
“At the end of my current term, I will have spent almost 40 years in law enforcement and over 10 years as sheriff of Orange County,” she said in a statement. “It has been a great honor and privilege to serve as sheriff and I would not even consider retiring if there was not a highly qualified and electable candidate ready to serve.”
The ACLU pointed out that Hutchens managed to rise through the ranks “despite a controversial deadly shooting in 1980, when she fatally shot a 33- year-old man. The death resulted in a $1.3 million wrongful death suit, which at the time was the largest police misconduct verdict in California.”
Hutchens endorsed Undersheriff Don Barnes, who started his law enforcement career with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in 1989, to succeed her.
Barnes “has worked for our department for 29 years and has excelled at every position and assignment,” she said. “He possesses the experience and qualities needed to lean an agency with 3,800 sworn and professional staff members and over 800 reserve personnel. I am confident that Don Barnes will work tirelessly and effectively to keep the citizens of Orange County safe in their homes, neighborhoods, schools and places of business.”
–City News Service