Despite campaign promises by Sheriff Alex Villanueva to remove ICE agents from county jails, all that has changed about how inmates are released into immigration custody is an 80-foot walk through the county jail, according to a county watchdog.
However, the number of inmates handed over to ICE contractors is down significantly this year over last.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff do not set foot in the jails, but ICE employs the same contractors to pick up inmates that it used before Villanueva took office last year, Deputy Inspector General Shadi Kardan told the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The only difference is that individuals eligible for federal criminal detainers are turned over in a different location in the jail, about 80 feet away from where exchanges used to be made, she said.
Sheriff's Capt. Brendan Corbett acknowledged that the federal agency uses three contractors to handle transfers from the county jail and that inmates eligible for transfer are turned over in the "custody line," where inmates are routinely extradited to other jurisdictions, picked up for state prison or released to other agencies.
The captain also told the board that transfers for misdemeanors are down 72% in 2019 and cited a policy change by the Sheriff's Department that reduced the number of eligible misdemeanors by 50 charges. Overall transfers are down 53%, Corbett said.
Inspector General Max Huntsman said those numbers were misleading, pointing to studies of statewide data showing that transfers were down because of Senate Bill 54 -- which limits state and local agencies' cooperation with ICE -- and were unrelated to the department's policy change.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger encouraged the feuding sides to work together.
"I don't care who takes the credit," she said. "I don't feel that there's teamwork going on here ... I think that we need to build trust here."
Corbett said he had spoken to Villanueva, who wasn't insisting that a smaller list of eligible misdemeanors was the only issue and that the county's Office of Diversion and Reentry could be another factor in the lower numbers.
The sheriff wants to gather a full year of data before drawing any conclusions, he said.
Huntsman also mentioned two people who were turned over to ICE but should not have been, saying it was evidence that the department's procedure wasn't working.
Corbett acknowledged the errors, but said the policy itself was effective.
Huntsman told the board "the OIG is not satisfied," insisting that mistakes would continue to occur under the current procedure.
Corbett presented data on the number of 2018 transfers as part of a public hearing required by law under the state Trust Act, which mandates transparency around collaboration between law enforcement and ICE.
Of the 5,233 detainers the department received from the federal government in 2018, roughly 65% of the named individuals did not qualify for transfer, Corbett told the board. Others were not picked up by ICE for a variety of reasons and 945 people were ultimately released to ICE custody.
The board, the sheriff and the OIG have been battling over hiring practices, deputy cliques, a department budget deficit and transparency. The board and the sheriff have sued and countersued one another over the rehiring of Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan, who was terminated over allegations of domestic violence. A judge issued a preliminary injunction in August, ruling that Mandoyan must give up his badge and gun pending trial on the issue.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who has not typically been in the sheriff's corner, took a conciliatory stance.
"He's trying to and is complying with SB 54," Kuehl said. "We're grateful for the effort."
Some criminal justice advocates were unconvinced.
Amelia Gray of ICE Out of LA said the sheriff's policies amounted to a "bait-and-switch" relative to campaign promises. Gray said the Sheriff's Department spends $1.5 million annually to assist ICE, an amount equal to the $1.5 million the county pays into the L.A. Justice Fund to defend immigrants in deportation proceedings.
"$1.5 million to deport and $1.5 million to defend. Strange math," Gray said.
The county in 2017 committed $3 million over two years to the LA Justice Fund. In 2018, members of the Civilian Oversight Commission estimated that the Sheriff's Department spends $1.4 million on administrative expenses related to processing ICE detainers.
No action was taken by the board.