In an interfamily squabble among lefty progressives, supporters and detractors of Measure S — the half-cent jail tax on November’s ballot measure — went at it last week at a forum hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union in Isla Vista’s Embarcadero Hall. Rick Roney — a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who retired to Santa Barbara — argued that Measure S would provide not only a much-needed new jail for the north county but also $5 million a year for prevention programs that could reduce the county’s current recidivism rate of 72 percent. Roney cited a pilot program he helped get off the ground that put a 35-percent dent in the county’s rate of reoffending.
Leading the charge against Measure S was UCSB Professor Cedric Robinson, an iconic mainstay of the progressive left, who, it turns out, was a probation officer in his early life. Robinson noted that the United States currently has two million people behind bars; China, he said, has only 600,000. “We have 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its incarcerated population,” he said. “There’s something wrong.” Robinson blamed the war on drugs for imprisoning people for simple drug possession. Nationwide, he said, 30 percent of people behind bars have serious mental health problems. He said the United States spends $74 billion locking people up and less than one percent of that amount on prevention and treatment programs. In that context, he charged that the $5 million a year Measure S would generate for prevention is insufficient.
Coming to Roney’s assistance was Mark Hamilton, a retired teacher who lived in Isla Vista from 1961 to 1982. Hamilton said he was one of the first to darken the county’s current jail’s doors when he was arrested in the early 1970s during a protest at Perfect Park. “I have no argument with anything Cedric just said,” Hamilton said many times. “It’s all true. But I didn’t hear a word of hope in any of it.” Hamilton said people consigned to County Jail would be better served by a modern facility that had the space for education and rehabilitation programs. “Otherwise we are no better than third-world jails,” he said. “One vote here doesn’t change the whole world. But what it does, it changes things right here in Santa Barbara.”
The sympathies of the 80 people in attendance clearly lay with opponents of the jail tax. Proponents of Measure S have raised $131,000 to date to argue a new tax is necessary. The Deputy Sheriffs’ Association has donated $20,000; Sheriff Bill Brown, $10,000; county firefighters, $5,000; and the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians, $20,000. Opponents have raised less than $1,500, most from anti-tax activists and conservative Republicans. Despite this dramatic imbalance, Measure S proponents are waging an uphill fight. Not only is this an especially daunting time to seek a tax increase, but a two-thirds majority is required for passage. In that context, any opposition, no matter how small, can prove fatal.