Since 1980, California has built 23 prisons and one university. This construction has been matched by harsher sentences, increased policing, and a shift in financial priorities from health and human services to policing and prisons. These changes have caused the prison population to go from 20,000 to 170,000, proving that the number of cages determines the number of people locked in them.
The trend for the past thirty years has been clear: California builds a new prison, fills the prison beyond capacity, and then builds another. We can stop this trend by voting down Measure S.
California has been given a federal court order to reduce its prison population by 43,000 over the next two years. Both the District Court 3 Judge Panel and the Expert Panel on Adult Offender and Recidivism Reduction Programs agree that we cannot build our way out of this problem. If Santa Barbara builds another county jail, the State will avoid any real plans for reducing prison overcrowding and instead will shift the cost and suffering due to overcrowding to Santa Barbara County jails and taxpayers.
Of the $30 million dollars Measure S would generate annually, only a mere $5 million would support prevention, intervention, and mental health care—the Independent itself calls these programs the most critical to help people keep out of jail. They also say that these jails are “less than ideal venues for people struggling with these demons” – We agree! So why build them in the first place? While it’s tempting to take any amount of money offered for programs that have been experiencing extreme cuts in recent years, we can’t do it at the expense of the communities who will undoubtedly be targeted to fill the new jail. Why not instead invest in the things that really make us safe: education, housing, medical and mental healthcare, and living wage jobs.
Community members and other advocates across the state have identified hundreds of strategies to reduce the prison population, including establishing community-based transformative justice programs, eliminating the governor’s discretion to veto parole recommendations, abolishing or amending Three Strikes, and discharging people over 60 to parole. In Los Angeles, the Youth Justice Coalition is campaigning to shift one percent of the Los Angeles County policing budget to community-based gang intervention programs in order to drastically reduce the number of young people being locked up. Groups like All Of Us Or None and A New Way of Life are working to eliminate barriers to successful re-entry for those returning home from prison by providing community-based services and campaigning to end discrimination against formerly incarcerated people in hiring, housing, and voting practices. We don’t lack expertise, we only lack political will.
It’s no secret that California boasts some of the foulest, most decrepit prisons in the country. The conditions in which prisoners live have led to at least one death a week for the past decade. Imprisonment conditions have also led to an increase in mental and medical health crises for those inside, as well as those returning to their communities. Jail and prison construction has not addressed these cruel conditions or reduced overcrowding, and it certainly cannot address the real mental health needs of our communities. It is time to try a new strategy.
If we as Santa Barbara County residents, are prepared to increase our taxes, we should make sure that we are investing our hard-earned dollars in the things we truly believe in. We cannot afford to follow the State’s example of continuing to cut social services while investing more and more money in cages. What else could $30 million do in Santa Barbara?
Voting “no” on Measure S sends a clear message that we want a real investment in our community and that we’re not willing to prioritize a new jail over our social welfare. Voting “no” vote on Measure S sends a clear message to California that Santa Barbara County is willing to be a leader in pushing to change our state’s backward priorities.
This piece is solely the opinion of the authors and does not represent the position of organizations to which they belong.