San Diego Central Jail by Tristan Loper
San Diego Central Jail by Tristan Loper

Fix the problem or face the consequences. That was Attorney General Rob Bonta’s message for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department on Saturday regarding the unusually high number of jail deaths locally.

Bonta said he wanted to give San Diego’s newly-elected Sheriff Kelly Martinez time to fix the problem. But if death rates in San Diego jails don’t come down, Bonta said he could pursue multiple legal remedies.

“A new sheriff was elected and the first meeting that I had with her was to talk about this — welcome her to the role, offer support as well — but to talk about the disturbing number of in-custody deaths,” said Bonta.

Bonta said he believed it is “appropriate and fair” to give Martinez time to fix the problem, since she was only sworn into office in January.

San Diego County has had the highest rate of jail deaths among large California counties for the last 10 years, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

Attorney General Rob Bonta at the University of San Diego for Voice of San Diego’s Politifest 2023 on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano for Voice of San Diego

Martinez told Bonta when they initially met that she planned to take action to reduce the death rate, Bonta said.

Lt. David LaDieu, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department, said much action has already been taken, beginning with the intake process.

Detainees now receive a medical and mental health screening upon entering a jail, LaDieu wrote in an email. They also are given the option of taking a drug screening. This helps improve care, LaDieu wrote.

Sheriff’s officials have also taken action to reduce the amount of illicit drugs inside jails, which in turn reduces overdoses, LaDieu wrote.

“We have seen record interceptions at the point of booking where narcotics were removed from individuals who were attempting to smuggle them into the jails; these interceptions have had a direct impact on the decrease of overdoses taking place within the facilities,” he wrote.

Jailers also now carry Naloxone, which can be administered for overdoses, and it is directly available to detainees, as well.

Two local lawmakers recently pushed through new laws, partially in response to in-custody deaths in San Diego.

One bill, authored by Senator Toni Atkins, will create a new state director position to oversee the review of in-custody jail deaths.

Another bill, authored by Assemblywoman Akilah Weber, adds new seats Board of State and Community Corrections, which oversees county jails. The board is currently too heavy with members of law enforcement, Weber has said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed both bills into law, last week.

Bonta said he and Martinez are supposed to meet again soon. He hopes the Sheriff’s Department will be able to solve the problem by having a “collaborative partnership” with his Department of Justice, he said. If not, however, there are other options.

“A lawsuit is always possible. We launch pattern and practice investigations when civil rights have been violated,” said Bonta. “We’ve done that in Riverside County… and we can do it here, as well.

Martinez understands the stakes are high, LaDieu wrote.

“The Sheriff understands the Attorney General has the authority and ability to file a lawsuit or investigate civil rights violations,” LaDieu wrote. “She is committed to making the improvements that are needed to ensure individuals are being treated fairly and with the proper care when they come into our custody.”

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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