By Joe Nelson, The Sun
Posted: 06/03/16 – 9:17 PM PDT |

Officials with the labor union representing San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies said Friday that prison realignment and a shortage of deputies has prompted a safety campaign that has delayed the transport of inmates to court.

As a result, inmates this week were not arriving to court until late morning or early afternoon, delaying court hearings and forcing continuances.

Leadership at the Sheriff’s Safety Employee Benefit Association, the union representing 1,800 deputies, would neither confirm nor deny the campaign was in reaction to unresolved labor negotiations between the union and the county that have spanned more than a year. The union declared an impasse on Dec. 15.

However, San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon wrote in an email late Friday that the safety campaign was a “component of the negotiation process.”

On May 27, SEBA notified its members via an online video that it was implementing the “policy compliance campaign,” said Grant Ward, secretary for SEBA and leader of the union’s safety negotiations team.

As a result, inmates are being moved from county jails to the buses that transport them to court in small groups, instead of by the dozens as is usually the case, Ward said.

County spokesman David Wert had no direct comment on the safety campaign. In an email Friday, he wrote: “The county is negotiating with its employees in good faith and we are confident agreements will be reached that are fair to everyone involved.”

Ward said that the last thing deputies want to do is disrupt the judicial process, but that precautions need to be taken because of a declining number of deputies and the state’s prison realignment program, which he said creates more risk for deputies. Under realignment, which took effect in 2011, some inmates who would have been sent to state prisons instead are serving out their sentences in county jails.

“When we’re walking lines of inmates from one point to another, the policy will say do it in small groups and do it safely. In the past we have had dozens of inmates lined up in the (jail) hallway,” Ward said. “If that means that it takes more time, then yes, processing inmates safely in small groups could take more time.”

He said SEBA’s “policy compliance campaign” will continue indefinitely.

An example of how SEBA’s campaign has snagged the judicial process could be seen Friday morning in San Bernardino Superior Court. A hearing scheduled for 8:30 a.m. for Charles Ray Merritt, accused of killing a family of four in San Diego County in 2010 and burying their bodies in shallow graves near Victorville, was delayed until 1:30 p.m. because Merritt and other inmates had not arrived to court in time for their scheduled appearances.

“It really burdens everybody,” said Merritt’s attorney, Rajan Maline.

He said the delays affect not only lawyers, court administration and Sheriff’s Department staff, but jurors as well.

“They’re putting their lives on hold,” Maline said of the jurors. “It really is a problem.”

SEBA’s campaign comes amid more than a year of unresolved labor negotiations with the county. The current contract expires in September.

On May 24, dozens of SEBA members rallied outside the county Government Center, demanding higher pay or at least compensation on par with sheriff’s departments in nearby Riverside, Orange, Kern, Ventura and San Diego counties.

San Bernardino County deputies are paid an average of between 14 to 27 percent less in total compensation, including salary and benefits, Ward said.

It has resulted in deputies leaving the department for better pay and benefits at more competitive agencies, Ward said.

“We lost seven deputies last month, and last year we lost 50,” Ward said.

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