Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. Photo courtesy of the OCSD

Cancer and criticism had nothing to do with the Orange County Sheriff’s decision to retire.

That’s the word from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens who said she decided not to seek another term because she felt it is time to retire, and the move had nothing to do with criticism about the way the jails are being run or a breast cancer diagnosis she received five years ago.

Hutchens announced her decision to end her law enforcement career on Tuesday, the same day the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report that was deeply critical of conditions at Orange County’s five jail facilities and called for her to resign.

Hutchens told reporters Wednesday the timing of her announcement was purely coincidental. She also denied that persistent allegations of constitutional abuses of inmates’ rights in her jails played a role in her decision.

Hutchens noted that the ACLU’s report was based on the testimonials of about 120 former and current inmates and sheriff’s officials were never consulted.

“I’m not going to call it an investigation because it doesn’t rise to that level in my mind,” Hutchens said.

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From 2011-2017 — the time frame covered by the ACLU report — there were about 350,000 bookings of suspects, so the organization’s study involved 0.0003 percent of the total number of inmates who passed through the jails, Hutchens said.

The 48 in-custody deaths cited in the reports represented 0.0001 percent of total jail bookings in the six-year period, Hutchens said. She said 22 of those deaths were due to natural causes and 42 percent happened at a hospital.

The sheriff also emphasized there is adequate medical and psychological care for inmates.

“Mental health staff are available 24-7, including psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed social workers, marriage/family therapists, psychiatric registered nurses and mental health specialists,” Hutchens said.

She denied the jails are overcrowded, saying there is an 18 percent vacancy rate. The James Musick jail is 40 percent vacant, she said.

Hutchens told reporters she rejects the ACLU’s call for an outside inspector to take a look at the jails.

“Like all custody operations, Orange County’s jail facilities are inspected on a regular basis by multiple government agencies and independent oversight authorities,” Hutchens said.

Hutchens said at charitable fundraisers she often auctions off a visit to the jails.

“If we had something to hide we wouldn’t be taking people into the jails,” Hutchens said.

Her decision to retire “was not made on the basis of the ACLU report,” she said. She also said it “was not made because of the informant program (allegations) and (it) was not made because we’ve had an escape.”

In January 2016, the escape of three inmates and ensuing weeklong manhunt generated headlines across the country.

“At the end of 18 months, I will have had 40 and a half years in law enforcement, and I think that is enough,” Hutchens said. “I have taken a lot of time away from my family.”

Hutchens added,  “I look forward to spending more time with them.” She noted her younger brother recently retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and her husband is nearing retirement.

Hutchens assured the public that the breast cancer with which she was diagnosed in November 2012 is in remission.

“I have heard rumors out there that the sheriff is stepping down because of illness,” Hutchens said. “I don’t have an illness. I’m fine. Everything is coming back (OK), everything is OK, so it’s not for a health reason. I work out in the morning. I feel good.

“… I am confident I will be fine.”

Hutchens said she hopes to spend time in retirement “gardening, cooking and reading more books.”

Hutchens has endorsed Undersheriff Don Barnes to replace her, but he will have competition from Aliso Viejo Mayor Dave Harrington, a retired sheriff’s sergeant.

Harrington told City News Service that the recent scandals in the sheriff’s department represent a failure of leadership.

“Mike Carona’s sheriff’s department is alive and well,” Harrington said, referring to Hutchens’ disgraced predecessor, who resigned and was later convicted of witness tampering.

“I was a happily retired public servant,” Harrington said. “But it was too much to watch what’s happening in law enforcement and the lack of leadership and I think it’s time for a different direction.”

Harrington said the escape happened because a sergeant’s red flag regarding inspections was ignored by his supervisors. An Orange County grand jury report recently cited the flawed inspection process as one reason why the inmates escaped.

`I think she’s a fine person. I like her personally, Harrington said. “I have survived kidney cancer and I talked to her about that, so that’s one of those things we shared.”

Harrington also credited Hutchens for the way she handled the post- Carona controversy.

“She came in when we needed someone to grab that steering wheel,” Harrington said.

However, Hutchens trusted her management too much and didn’t do enough to listen to the troops, he said.

“Because she blamed (the escape) on an aging facility that ended up costing taxpayers $10 million,” Harrington said. “A sergeant went to his boss, appropriately so, and said there’s a problem here (with bed checks) and he was ignored by the administration.”

Harrington said it was a “bunch of nonsense” to blame the snitch scandal on a lack of training of deputies. Harrington said the deputies should have been aware of what a Massiah violation is because it’s long-standing law.

A Massiah violation happens when an inmate is questioned about his case by an informant when the suspect has legal representation.

“They act like Massiah was some bizarre case. And that’s as old as Miranda,” he said, referring to the requirement to read a suspect’s constitutional rights before an arrest.

–City News Service

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