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By Monith Ilavarasan

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About this blog: My parents, brother, and I moved to Pleasanton when I was in the seventh grade. I then graduated from Amador Valley High School, went to college at UC Davis and started out a career in tech. After several years working in large co...  (More)

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Why the Sheriff's department matters

Uploaded: Jun 15, 2022
Something I never learned back in high school history class was that Santa Rita Jail had a very famous visitor on Jan. 14, 1968. On that fateful day Martin Luther King Jr. made a visit to the old Santa Rita Jail, just months before he was assassinated.

According to an article published in the Pleasanton Weekly by Dolores Fox Ciardelli, King came to the Bay Area to visit folk singer Joan Baez, her mother Joan Bridge Baez, and activist Ira Sandperl. All three were serving 45-day "Christmas prison terms'' after their participation in Stop the Draft Week protests at the Oakland Induction Center. They previously had joined King on civil rights marches throughout the south.

Fast forward to present day and Santa Rita Jail continues to be in the news. The state of the prison and their leadership even got national press and airtime in an HBO show. In a clip viewed over 8.7 million times John Oliver details how at least 29 female detainees have sued over allegations of abuse and mistreatment, with complaints ranging from being put in a cell with feces and blood on the walls to a woman who gave birth alone in an isolation cell.

In response to these accusations, the current leadership accused the women of lying due to the fact they were alleged criminals.

Since 2014, at least 58 people have died at Santa Rita Jail, which is located in Dublin. The facility is now subject to external oversight and a series of mandatory reforms following the settlement of a class-action lawsuit that alleged the sheriff wasn’t providing adequate mental health services.

The lawsuit settlement followed a highly critical report by the U.S. Justice Department which found that Alameda County’s mental health care system is unconstitutional and that Santa Rita Jail is overcrowded, understaffed, and endangers detainees. The federal investigation found that the county’s lack of community-based services forces people into inadequate treatment in emergency rooms and Santa Rita Jail.

The Alameda County Sheriff's Office is in charge of a wide range of responsibilities. The department has over 1,500 authorized positions, including over 1,000 sworn deputies. Those deputies patrol unincorporated areas in Alameda County as well as provide services to certain cities such as Dublin. Outside of sworn personnel, their key responsibilities include operating the coroner’s bureau, serving eviction notices, conducting police academies, operating county jails and operating detention centers.

In order to accomplish these tasks, the sheriff has a budget of close to about $500 million a year. For scale, it is over five times as large as the district attorney’s budget and makes up 15% of Alameda County’s entire yearly budget. Close to 50% of the entire sheriff’s budget ($240 million) goes towards the maintenance of jails and detention centers.

There are a little over 3,450 people currently housed in these facilities. This means that it costs the taxpayer in Alameda County roughly $70,000 a year to house a single inmate every year under the conditions listed above.

For the first time since taking office 15 years ago, Sheriff Gregory Ahern has faced challenges in his re-election bid. One opponent is Yesenia Sanchez, a commander in the sheriff’s office. The other is JoAnn Walker, a 26-year officer with the San Francisco police.

Yesenia Sanchez currently looks poised to take over the sheriff's office by winning the primary outright by 52% of the total vote. This election cycle provided a unique opportunity for voters to help shape the future of the sheriff’s department in our county. I hope the future holds a department with values that align with making our communities safe and supportive.
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