Calif. lawmakers order audit of sheriff's offices' spending, jail conditions

Auditors will focus on four counties before potentially extending the audit to all counties statewide


Jason Pohl
Sacramento Bee

FRESNO COUNTY — Citing a series of jail deaths in Fresno County and faltering local oversight across the state, lawmakers have directed the California auditor’s office to review how sheriffs manage their county jails.

The six-month project will focus on Fresno, Los Angeles and Alameda counties. It will include a 10-year examination of jail population trends and how counties have spent millions of taxpayer dollars intended to pay for a massive public safety “realignment” approved in 2011. That effort under former Gov. Jerry Brown diverted thousands of inmates from state prisons to county jails.

California State Auditor Elaine Howle said Wednesday that her team will evaluate whether spending is consistent with the spirit of the prison overhaul and whether counties could do more to make their spending more transparent. The audit will take some 2,600 hours and cost approximately $350,000.

Assembly Member Sydney Kamlager, D-Los Angeles, requested the audit and included Fresno County in her request because of a surge in jail deaths in the years since the 2011 realignment. She referenced recent reporting from McClatchy and ProPublica that found the number of in-custody deaths doubled in the seven years since realignment compared to the seven years prior.

She also included in her request Los Angeles County because of ongoing tension between the board of supervisors and the sheriff and Alameda County because of a ongoing audit demands being turned down.

“My hope is that this audit of three sheriffs departments will open the door to auditing other sheriffs departments across the state,” Kamlager said.

Addressing the Joint Legislative Audit Committee on Wednesday, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims disputed the need for an audit and criticized what she said was short notice to her office about the request.

“Had these questions been asked of me beforehand I would have answered,” she said.

Mims downplayed the need for the state to investigate her office because, she said, a recent review of the county’s realignment spending turned up no problems. Sen. Andreas Borgeas, R-Fresno, and Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, likewise criticized the process and gave little weight to the immediate need for a state audit because of the report Mims mentioned.

But that study, which turned up no irregularities, was among the most basic levels of review that accountants conduct, said Eric Xin, a partner with the group that did the analysis, Brown Armstrong, Certified Public Accountants.

The Sacramento Bee received a copy of that five-page report after Wednesday’s hearing. While reviewers looked at “over 1,000” expenditure lines, it was a small sample of otherwise expansive budget documents, Xin said.

That was by design — county officials who commissioned the report, which cost $4,500, kept the procedures extremely narrow in scope. They also did not ask the accountants to offer any opinion or broader conclusions about the use of the funds, as would be customary in more sweeping studies.

“This is not an audit,” Xin said Wednesday.

Fresno County has received more than $221 million in state realignment money since 2011, a Bee analysis found. Alameda County has received more than $284 million, and Los Angeles County has received roughly $2.5 billion.

Statewide, counties have received more than $8 billion to cover the increased local costs of 2011’s public safety realignment. The California Constitution prohibits county officials from using that money to cut their own costs elsewhere. But lax spending rules and limited scrutiny from both state and county officials have allowed just that, McClatchy and ProPublica reported in December.

Though local governments routinely move money from one law enforcement purpose to another, doing so with realignment funds may violate state law.

The realignment legislation created county committees to oversee distribution of the funds. The so-called Community Corrections Partnerships, made up of leaders from departments in each county, field budget requests, sometimes debate them and forward their recommendations to county boards of supervisors.

The committees were supposed to limit the influence of elected sheriffs and district attorneys, and to encourage spending on social services and alternatives to incarceration, said Craig Cornett, former budget director for the California State Senate, in a previous interview.

“We set up certain walls within it, partly in order to just keep the law enforcement crowd in check,” he said.

Counties release broad outlines of how they parcel the money out every year, but their disclosures provide little to no detail on how agencies spent the funds and whether they’ve reduced recidivism or improved social services.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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