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Times Poll : Public Supports Changes to S.D. County Jail System

Times Staff Writer

Displaying growing dissatisfaction with the Sheriff’s Department, San Diegans favor removing the jails from Sheriff John Duffy’s control and strongly support establishing an independent civilian board to review complaints against deputies, a Times poll shows.

While San Diegans were divided on their view of overall jail conditions, the poll found that two-thirds favor creating a civilian review board and that, by a more than 3-to-2 margin, they would prefer to see the jails run by a separate corrections department answerable to the Board of Supervisors.

In addition, nearly three-fourths of those polled said they believe recent allegations--detailed in a San Diego County Grand Jury report and news stories--that deputies have beaten and harassed jail inmates.

Duffy’s personal performance drew lukewarm reviews in the poll. Although people approved, by a 36%-20% margin, of Duffy’s handling of the job that he has held since 1971, only 28% of those polled said they likely would vote for him if he seeks reelection next year. However, both questions found a large percentage of undecided San Diegans--44% in the case of Duffy’s overall performance and 35% in regard to their early preferences in the 1990 sheriff’s contest.

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Not only do San Diegans strongly desire changes in the jail system, but they also are willing to pay to upgrade and expand local detention facilities, the poll showed.

By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, San Diegans said they would support another measure similar to last year’s Proposition A, a half-cent sales tax for jails and courts narrowly approved by voters but struck down by a court last month. Recent ballot propositions, however, have attracted considerably less support for such taxes. Over the last 2 1/2 years, two separate sales-tax ballot proposals for jails--both of which required two-thirds majorities for passage--received barely more than 50% of the vote.

Unhappy With Duffy, Jails

“What it comes down to is that people aren’t all that happy with Duffy or the jails, and they’re apparently willing to reach into their pockets to do something about it,” Times pollster I.A. Lewis said.

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The Times poll is based on telephone interviews conducted Saturday of 811 people throughout San Diego County. The poll’s margin of sampling error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Coming less than a month after the Grand Jury report sharply criticized the sheriff’s operation of the jails, the poll found strong support for some potentially sweeping changes that in the past have been proposed by the supervisors and others.

Sixty-seven percent of those polled said an independent civilian panel should be set up to investigate complaints against sheriff’s deputies such as those detailed in the Grand Jury study, which concluded that there have been systematic abuses in the jails and that some deputies “delight in cruelty” to inmates. Twenty-four percent opposed the idea of a civilian review board, while 9% were undecided.

Support Found

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Supervisor Susan Golding, who has proposed that top county officials review all jail deaths, said that she interprets the poll’s findings as evidence that the public “wants a more thorough and independent review of these cases than we’re getting now.”

“The problem we have now is one of the fox guarding the hen house,” Golding said. “It should not be just the sheriff who reviews jail deaths. There has to an an outside, independent evaluation. These (poll) results show me that the public sees a need for greater accountability.”

By a 47%-30% margin, San Diegans favor shifting operation of the jails from Duffy’s jurisdiction to a separate corrections department that would report directly to the Board of Supervisors. Under the current system, the board sets Duffy’s annual budget but cannot control how he spends the money appropriated or allocates manpower--a division of authority that some supervisors complain severely restricts their ability to set priorities or directly influence jail operations.

Anathema to Duffy

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Both ideas--the review board and a corrections department--are anathema to Duffy, who has strongly resisted such proposals.

During a protracted budget dispute with Duffy last year, some supervisors suggested examining the feasibility of a county Department of Corrections--a plan similar to one that the board adopted in 1975 but then let die amid intense public opposition generated by Duffy. With Duffy threatening to repeat that effort, last year’s proposal never even reached the serious discussion stage. Similarly, Golding conceded that Duffy’s vehement opposition is one reason why the purview of her proposed reviews would be limited to investigating only jail deaths, rather than any abuses or other allegations of prisoner mistreatment.

The Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday refused to comment on the poll’s findings.

Equally Divided

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According to the poll, San Diegans are almost equally divided on the question of whether the jails are basically sound, with 39% saying that they are in relatively good shape and 38% disagreeing. There was a similar, though less close, division among the poll’s respondents on another question dealing with the effectiveness of the Sheriff’s Department’s management of the jails, with 38% expressing disapproval and 30%, approval. That 8 percentage-point gap, however, falls within the poll’s margin of error. In addition, 32% were undecided on that question.

By an overwhelming 72%-12% margin, people said that they believe the recent allegations of harassment and abuse in the jails. However, 45% described the abuses as isolated instances rather than widespread practices, and 46% believe that the media have exaggerated the extent of the abuses.

Asked what they see as the major cause of those problems, 69% of those polled cited the seriously overcrowded conditions in the jails, where inmate populations typically are double the facilities’ official capacities. Other explanations, however, point either directly or indirectly at Duffy: 36% attributed the problems to poor supervision of the deputies, 19% saw inadequate deputy training as the cause and 10% blamed the jails’ woes on Duffy’s lack of leadership.

If Duffy seeks a sixth four-year term next year, the potential electoral fallout from those attitudes about jail conditions--as well as about Duffy’s and his department’s overall performance--could pose difficulties for the sheriff, the poll suggests.

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Only 28% of those polled said that they would be inclined to vote for Duffy if he seeks reelection, compared to 37% who said they likely would vote against him, with 35% undecided.

Another question asking for an appraisal of Duffy’s handling of his job drew a favorable response from 36% of the people questioned, while 20% disapproved and 44% were undecided. Disapproval of Duffy’s performance was highest among those people who said they have paid relatively close attention to the recent news stories about jail conditions.

Calling the 44% undecided figure “unusually high for anyone who’s been in office nearly 20 years,” Lewis termed the statistic “hardly a solid endorsement” of Duffy’s tenure.

‘A Little Teed Off’

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“I wouldn’t say anyone or anything--Duffy, the deputies or the jails--comes off looking very good here,” Lewis said. “It looks like the people are getting a little teed off.”

Not surprisingly, the poll found a strong link between people’s attitudes about jail conditions and their perception of Duffy’s overall performance. For example, those who approved of the Sheriff’s Department’s management of the jails gave Duffy a favorable job performance rating by a 54%-16% margin, while those who found fault with the jails’ management disapproved of his performance, 36% to 33%.

OPINIONS ON SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT

Who do you think should run the jails: the Sheriff’s Department, a separate Corrections Department answerable to the Board of Supervisors, or another agency?

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Corrections Department: 47%

Sheriff’s Department: 30%

Other: 2%

Don’t know: 21%

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Do you favor establishing an independent board of civilians to review complaints against sheriff’s deputies, or would you be opposed to that idea?

Favor: 67%

Oppose: 24%

Don’t know: 9%

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What do you think is the most important reason for the allegations that deputies have harassed or beaten inmates and for other jail conditions? (Up to two answers were accepted from each respondent.)

Overcrowding: 69%

Poor supervision of the deputies: 36%

A failure of deputy training: 19%

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Lack of leadership by Duffy: 10%

Other reasons: 9%

Don’t know: 9%

If Sheriff John Duffy runs for reelection next year, would you be inclined to vote for him?

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No: 37%

Yes: 28%

Don’t know: 35%


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