After she was appointed to lead Orange County’s troubled Sheriff’s Department in 2008, Sandra Hutchens vowed to be a “change agent” and clean house.
Her predecessor, Michael S. Carona, had been indicted on federal corruption charges, and the agency was tainted by cronyism, sex scandals and allegations of rampant abuse in the county’s jails.
Nearly a decade later, as she faced mounting criticism over her department’s handling of jailhouse informants and the brazen escape by inmates last year, Hutchens said Tuesday that she will not seek reelection.
Her announcement came hours after the American Civil Liberties Union released a scathing report alleging inhumane treatment in the jails under her watch, and about a week before her long-awaited testimony on the use of a jailhouse informant in a convicted killer’s case.
In an interview, Hutchens said her decision to step down after a four-decade career in law enforcement “has nothing to do with controversy.”
“Forty years is enough,” the sheriff said. “It is time to step aside.”
Hutchens insisted she had turned around the struggling department, despite cutbacks amid the recession. The timing of her departure was driven by the need for a succession plan, she said. She has endorsed Undersheriff Don Barnes to replace her and said he needs time to organize his campaign.
“There will always be some controversy that occurs in a law enforcement agency,” Hutchens said. “I have faced storms before, and you know I don’t back down from a challenge. I am not stepping down from office. I will be here for 18 months.”
The county’s Board of Supervisors voted 3 to 2 to appoint her sheriff in 2008 after Carona, the longtime sheriff, stepped down while facing federal corruption charges. He was convicted of witness tampering and sentenced to 66 months in federal prison.
For years, Hutchens — the first woman to lead the agency — was a popular figure in county politics. After spending her career rising through the ranks of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, she was viewed as an outsider positioned to reform the agency. Voters reelected her in 2014, and she received credit for bringing stability.
“When she came in, she was a solid choice,” said David Harrington, the mayor of Aliso Viejo who retired from the Sheriff’s Department after a 28-year career. “She brought in good people and steadied the ship immediately after Mike Carona.”
But Harrington, who has announced his bid to run for sheriff in 2018, said as time went on, her department demonstrated “failed leadership” and poor communication, problems that have come to the fore in the management of the jail system.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into whether Orange County law enforcement routinely denied accused criminals fair trials by using jailhouse informants to secretly gather evidence.
The allegations of a jailhouse informant network surfaced in the case of Scott Dekraai, convicted of killing eight people during a rampage at a Seal Beach salon. Dekraai’s attorney argued that an informant had been intentionally placed in proximity to his client to perhaps extract a confession.
An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled that key information about the informant was not turned over to the defense as required, and jailhouse logs revealed a scheme to place informants near suspects.
Prosecutors and sheriff’s officials have called it a coincidence, but Dekraai’s attorney said the operation compromised defendants’ rights.
The scandal has caused convictions to be tossed out and led to a steady series of negative publicity for the Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office. Hutchens is expected to testify about the jailhouse allegations in Dekraai’s case next week.
An internal investigation of deputies related to the jailhouse informants is three-quarters complete but on hold, she said, because of the pending criminal investigation by the attorney general’s office as well as the ongoing federal probe.
Hutchens said she was “confident the truth will come out,” but she declined to address specific issues about the jailhouse informant scandal, saying she was preparing for her testimony.
This week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California called on Hutchens to resign, citing her handling of the jailhouse informant scandal and what it called “inhumane” conditions in the lockups.
The Sheriff’s Department denounced the ACLU for not giving the perspective of law enforcement in the report and for providing a “purposely distorted view” of the county’s jails.
After Hutchens announced her decision to step down, Tom Dominguez, president of the union representing Orange County sheriff’s deputies, thanked her for her service and focused on the election for a replacement.
“The Department needs strong, collaborative leadership to protect the public and work with its employees and our members,” Dominguez said in a statement.
A breast cancer survivor, Hutchens emphasized that she was not stepping down for health reasons. When she retires, she will have spent 10 ½ years in the job, and she took the long view about tempests during her tenure.
“I have always been one to lean forward into the wind,” she said.
Times staff writer Adam Elmahrek contributed to this report.
9:55 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional background and comments from Aliso Viejo Mayor David Harrington.
7:50 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Tom Dominguez and additional information on the ACLU’s jails report.
5:15 p.m. This article was updated with an interview with Hutchens.
This article was originally published at 4:15 p.m.