By Jessica Lopez
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department was awarded a $3.3 million grant, despite public backlash, to assist with reentry services after the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Board of Supervisors sanctioned the department to apply for the grant in January and voted unanimously April 27 to accept the federal funding.
The grant requires a portion of the dollars be allocated toward COVID-19 readiness supplies, like hand sanitizer and masks, job search assistance, and skill training. The Sheriff’s Department aims to aid formerly incarcerated adults, juveniles, detainees and probationers.
But public commenters, as they did when the proposal appeared in January, argued the grant would not truly benefit the incarcerated community.
Avalon Edwards, policy fellow for Starting Over Inc., an organization that helps incarcerated people with transitional housing and reentry services, strongly opposed the plan.
“In what world is the Sheriff’s Department capable of facilitating reentry when their explicit job is the opposite: to police and incarcerate our community,” Edwards asked, noting how a large chunk of the grant will go toward deputies’ salaries.
The standard agreement made between the Board of State and Community Corrections and Riverside County showed the grant was distributed to services and supplies, outreach programs and deputies salaries and benefits.
According to the agreement, 47% of the grant will be used to increase deputies’ salaries and benefits. This includes 12 overtime positions and an additional $52.50 per hour on top of their regular hourly rate of $35.
Private and public outreach programs, specialized in training individuals for future employment, will receive 23.6% of the grant. The remaining 28.3% is going to services and supply packets, including masks, hand sanitizer and a disposable thermometer.
Supervisor Chuck Washington supported the grant but expressed disappointment with the percentage of dollars spent on reentry organizations.
“I would have liked to have seen more funding going to our community-based organizations,” he said.
Washington asked for monthly updates so the board can regulate the spending of the grant.
“I’d like to ask our CEO, Mr. (Jeffrey) Van Wagenen, to ensure that the board is kept apprised of all the progress being made in this effort and monies that are being spent,” he said. “After all, it is the board’s responsibility to manage the county’s budget.”
He also noted the Sheriff’s Department was one of the only agencies to apply for the grant. Residents have questioned why no other county department attempted to apply for the grant.
“We can’t blame the sheriff for applying for a grant that’s available,” he said.
Another commenter, Natalia Serrano, the cousin of Ernie Serrano, 31, a man who died in deputies’ custody Dec. 15, did not support the initiative. She feared awarding the department with increased salaries and benefits would enable continuous “torture and abuse of civilians.”
“It’s disgusting the fact that more money is being given to them to kill more people, to torture more people, to destroy the families,” she said.