San Diego Central Jail by Tristan Loper
San Diego Central Jail / Photo by Tristan Loper

In the year before the coronavirus put inmates packed in county jails in peril, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department reported housing an average of 5,630 people in its seven jails each day. That number has fallen by a third following decisions to scale back jail bookings and release hundreds of inmates.

As of Friday, the department reported just 3,758 people were staying in its jails.

While the release of hundreds of inmates made headlines, changes to Sheriff’s Department policies dictating which offenses police can book low-level arrestees in jail for have played out more quietly.

Early in the pandemic, most jail bookings for misdemeanor offenses ground to a halt. Some policies have since shifted.

The department last month told San Diego police they could resume bookings for all misdemeanors though a sheriff’s spokeswoman said those jailed are swiftly released. The department said it didn’t make that change elsewhere in the region but confirmed it made some additional misdemeanors eligible for bookings.

It has refused to release its current countywide policy. The Sheriff’s Department would only release an almost entirely redacted version of a policy instituted July 2 listing offenses eligible and ineligible for jail bookings countywide to Voice of San Diego, a move that officials defended as an attempt to keep offenders from committing crimes with the knowledge they won’t be jailed for them.

That policy was set to expire Aug. 2, and the Sheriff’s Department said it opted to extend it through early September.

The department did release an unredacted version of the policy it had in place from mid-April through mid-June allowing bookings for misdemeanor domestic violence offenses and driving under the influence, for example, and advising officers to cite and release people for crimes including disorderly conduct and shoplifting absent special circumstances.

Multiple attorneys told VOSD the more recent blacked-out document appears to contradict the California Public Records Act and another state law that went into effect last year requiring law enforcement agencies to publicly post policies they would otherwise release after formal requests. The department has not posted its temporary policies on its website – and argues the documents shouldn’t be released under the Public Records Act either.

The dramatic drop in the county’s jail population has played out amid urgent calls for broad policing reforms across the country. Advocates have urged reductions in arrests for drug possession and quality-of-life offenses that they argue would lead to less spending on jails and provide increased funding for services and community programs.

Then COVID-19 precautions stopped jail bookings for many of those misdemeanor offenses.

Now, more than a year after state and local directives to remove bail charges for many offenses, it’s not clear where the Sheriff’s Department booking policies stand, and whether officials are considering making them permanent. The impact of the reduced bookings and jail releases over the past year has also been largely unclear, obscured by a slew of other rapid-fire and pandemic-related changes.

The Sheriff’s Department in April made some additional offenses eligible for booking countywide – namely, vehicle theft, second-degree burglary and being under the influence.

Then it allowed San Diego and Port of San Diego Harbor police to resume their pre-pandemic jail protocols for misdemeanors in early July due to a longstanding contract pledging access to up to 240 beds for people accused of misdemeanors at the county’s San Diego Central and Las Colinas facilities.

The Sheriff’s Department said it did not institute more changes for other agencies.

Still, officials at two North County police departments said booking policies are getting closer to those in place pre-pandemic.

Oceanside police spokesman Tom Bussey said booking polices are now “almost back to normal.”

He said confusion abounded for months as the Sheriff’s Department made changes. At times, Bussey said, Oceanside officers called their supervisors to check on whether they could book accused offenders. In other instances, he said officers were sometimes forced to release arrestees in the Vista jail parking lot after learning they weren’t eligible to be booked.

Escondido Police Capt. Justin Murphy agreed that Sheriff’s Department policies are now similar to those in place before COVID.

“(It’s) almost back to normal where they’re taking most of what they were taking pre-COVID,” Murphy said.

Inmate numbers in county jails have remained steady in recent weeks despite whatever changes have occurred – and amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

The Sheriff’s Department said jail occupancies have remained consistent because the agency has typically processed and released misdemeanor arrestees after giving them a future court appearance date, even after accepting bookings for more offenses.

For now, the Sheriff’s Department is mum on whether it might pursue permanent booking changes post-pandemic. Sheriff Bill Gore has previously reminded county supervisors that they have “no direct authority” over jails.

Lt. Amber Baggs, a department spokeswoman, would only say in an email that the agency’s “post COVID-19 posture is yet to be determined.”

Emily Cox, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Superior Court, wrote in an email to VOSD that the court is not considering making permanent the emergency bail changes that paved the way for reduced bookings but expects they will remain in effect through the end of the year.

District Attorney Summer Stephan’s office and County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer separately told VOSD they have been digging in to try to assess the impact of changes that have played out over the last year.

A spokeswoman for Stephan, who participated in last year’s discussions about bail changes and objected to the release of some jail inmates, wrote in an email to VOSD that Stephan’s office has gathered data to try to understand how the changes have affected public safety. The office is also researching “what the best course of action may be moving forward,” spokeswoman Tanya Sierra wrote.

Lawson-Remer, who earlier this year successfully pushed a new policy barring county jails from charging for phone calls, hinted last week that she may be open to reform possibilities depending what she uncovers.

“We want a data-driven approach to public safety reflective of diverse community needs. Let’s get the information we learned from the pandemic and put it to good use,” Lawson-Remer wrote in a statement. “I want to see the data and see where that data takes us.”

Even amid dramatic reductions in jail bookings and large-scale inmate releases during the pandemic, legal advocates have argued the Sheriff’s Department hasn’t done enough to protect those staying in its jails.

The American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance and a local law firm filed a class action in March demanding that Gore and the Sheriff’s Department do more to safeguard inmates. They called for the department to either dramatically increase vaccinations or reduce jail populations to allow effective social distancing.

Sheriff’s Department data shows the county’s jail numbers had ticked up to an average of more than 4,000 people a day during in March. On the day the suit was filed, the Union-Tribune reported that the George Bailey Detention Facility in Otay Mesa was just 11 people short of full capacity.

Overall jail numbers have since fallen again, and a Superior Court judge last month ruled that the suit should move forward despite the county’s attempt to quash it.

ACLU attorney Jonathan Markovitz said he is appalled by recent booking changes given the rise of more transmissible delta variant COVID-19 cases – and criticized the department’s refusal to offer full disclosure on its recent adjustments.

“This is a catastrophe in the making, and hardly a moment to resume pre-pandemic arrest and booking practices that will only lead to even more crowded conditions, pushing an already terrifying situation to the brink,” Markovitz wrote in an email.

He noted that county jails already experienced an outbreak involving more than 45 inmates this spring after one with COVID-19 was moved to multiple jail locations.

Late last week, the Sheriff’s Department told VOSD it had 16 active cases in the jail. The agency reported it had seen more 1,300 positive cases in its jails through July 31.

“The public has an overwhelming interest in knowing what, if any, measures the sheriff is taking to protect people who are incarcerated in San Diego County jails, including any measures he may be taking to reduce the jail population,” Markovitz wrote. “And people should not have to guess what actions may lead to their incarceration. There are serious problems with purported public safety measures that can only work by keeping the public in the dark. “

The Sheriff’s Department said it has diligently worked to try to protect inmates during the pandemic and defended its decision not to share its latest booking policies publicly.

“Our Medical Services Division is monitoring all COVID-19 developments, to include new variants,” Baggs wrote. “The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is committed to the safety, security, health and wellbeing of people in our custody.”

Baggs also wrote that releasing more details on the agency’s booking acceptance criteria could compromise public safety.

“This information may have the effect of emboldening some individuals to engage in unlawful activity if they have been assured that such conduct will not result in their being booked into jail,” Baggs wrote.

Geneviéve Jones-Wright, who leads Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance, has for months been skeptical of the sheriff’s commitment. Like Markovitz, she argued that the jail populations and bookings should be curtailed further given the risks for inmates – and that the department should be more transparent.

Still, she said that reduced misdemeanor bookings that have already been in place during the pandemic could help advocates make the case that such changes can be sustainable.

“COVID has definitely presented us with some great opportunities so we should capitalize on what worked when we had to make shifts during this pandemic,” Jones-Wright said. “We don’t want to revert back.”

Devin Whatley contributed to this report.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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