Around noon yesterday three tourists with bikini straps hanging out of their blouses peeked into the arch in front of the Santa Barbara Courthouse to catch a glimpse of the Sunken Gardens, but they quickly scurried away when confronted with a phalanx of judges, attorneys, and law enforcement personnel lined up behind a lectern.
The officials had gathered to demonstrate solidarity for Measure S across the criminal justice system as well as all three branches of the government. “Rarely do you see such a united front,” said Sheriff Bill Brown, whose remarks opened and closed the press conference.
Measure S was designed to address overcrowding in jails by funding construction of a 305-bed jail in the North County, refurbishing the existing facility, and increasing prevention efforts. This would all be funded by a half percent increase in the county sales tax. Proponents of the bill like to mention that the imposition of the tax coincides with a one percent reduction of the state sales tax, so the net effect will still be a half percent decrease for county residents.
The new jail would eat up half of the new revenue generated by the sales tax which is expected to raise $30 million annually until it expires in 2025. Thirty-four percent of the revenue would be slated for law enforcement and fire protection. The last 16 would be donated to reducing recidivism and funding alternatives to incarceration.
The Santa Barbara County Reentry Project would get a slice of that 16 percent, which adds up to almost $5 million. The project, which provides services to paroled prisoners, would garner $5 million per year from the Measure S tax. According to Rick Roney, the project’s founder who attended yesterday’s press conference, that money could pay for services to 1,250 “clients” per year. A study found the project to have reduced the recidivism rate by more than 35 percent as compared to a control group. Currently about 1,000 prisoners per year are released into the county with a recidivism rate of 70 percent. Sheriff Brown calculates that for every 100 released prisoners, there will be 231 more incarcerations down the road. Large-scale implementation of the Reentry Project would reduce that number to 81.
Asked whether revenue from a sales tax would be better spent on such programs or on preventative measures such as drug and mental health treatment, District Attorney Joyce Dudley said that keeping violent offenders off the street is the first priority. Not being able to keep criminals in jail will cost us in terms of law enforcement, the legal system, and “the souls of people affected by crime,” she said.
When confronted with concerns about taxing and spending during a recession, Brown pointed out that “this tax money doesn’t go to Sacramento or Washington.” It stays in Santa Barbara County and it will create jobs needed to build the new jail, refurbish the existing facility, and service both of them.
Sheriff Brown has already secured $56 million in state funding for the facility. Its total cost is estimated at $80 million.
Jim Laponis, longtime deputy CEO of the county, another attendee and supporter of the measure, said that “Measure S is an economic development program.” He said the measure would create 300 jobs in the North County where unemployment is currently 15 percent.
Speaking at the conference, Superior Court Judge Rogelio R. Flores said that Santa Maria, home to the largest urban population in the county, currently only contains 32 beds for prisoners at a substation. He said he is a strong proponent of rehabilitation and prevention, but that “drug courts need the possibility of consequences for people who violate the terms of their probation.” He put this all in the context of what he called a “methamphetamine pandemic” in the North County.
In his closing remarks, Sheriff Brown said, “It’s time for us to take local control of a local problem.”