History, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows. When Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown took his plans to relieve chronic overcrowding at the county jail to the Board of Supervisors this past Tuesday, he was responding to a chain of events set in motion 27 years ago by a convicted hitman named Dennis Boyd Miller. It was Miller-sentenced to life in prison for killing a high-profile Santa Barbara sculptor, his business partner, and his lover-who first filed a lawsuit charging that Santa Barbara’s county jail was so overcrowded that it violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Although Miller’s lawsuit was first filed in 1981, it’s been amended several times since then, and today remains very much alive. Superior Court Judge Brian Hill-the fifth jurist to wrestle with the problem-has repeatedly threatened to find Santa Barbara County in contempt of court if Sheriff Brown doesn’t make big changes at the jail. And soon.
But if Tuesday’s hearing was any indication, finding consensus on fixing the overcrowded jail is still a long, likely contentious way off. Although the supervisors praised Brown’s hard work and pledged to move forward as expediently as possible, they were seriously inquisitive about details small and large. The hearing, albeit a big step, was just the latest one in perhaps the longest political hike ever endured in county history.
By any measure, the changes proposed by the sheriff-and the Blue Ribbon Commission he appointed early last year to address the problem-qualify as innovative, comprehensive, and perhaps even historic. They focus almost as much on keeping people out of jail-through prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation programs-as they do on providing a new one. And Brown is offering more than the usual sweet talk about prevention; he’s committed to spending roughly $6 million a year on programs to help get people clean and sober, off the streets, out of gangs, and into as much therapy and counseling as they need. These groups were targeted because adult gang members comprise 42 percent of the jail population, substance abusers 85 percent, the mentally ill 30 percent, and homeless 18 percent. (Although illegal immigrants make up 12 percent of the jail population, Brown does not regard their removal as a solution. “Even if Congress were to approve the most strident measure, we’re still going to have illegal immigrants in our jail system for a very long time to come,” he said.)
More than that, Brown and his Blue Ribbon Commission have identified an income source from whence such funds would spring. “Bottom line, this is not about being warm and fuzzy,” said Brown. “It’s about public safety. We’re always going to have criminals and people we need to incarcerate. But by investing in prevention, we can chip away at our notoriously high recidivism rate.”
For Brown’s proposals to have any chance, however, county politicos and bureaucrats will have to act exceedingly fast. More than that, a super-majority of Santa Barbara voters must agree to a half-cent increase in the sales tax, something that’s never happened in the county. Without either, the plan falls apart.
Dollars & Cents
In a nutshell, Brown is proposing to build a new 300-bed county jail just outside Santa Maria. The current facility-located off the 101’s El Sueno exit-was built in 1972, and is rated to accommodate 818 prisoners but routinely houses closer to 1,000. (Even the 818 figure is misleading; in order for jails to maintain the flexibility required to segregate volatile populations-Eastside and Westside gang members, for example-they’re not supposed to operate at more than 85 percent capacity.) Brown said this new facility, to be located in the North County where 59 percent of the inmates were living at the time of their arrest, will take some of the bite out of a fierce space crunch that necessitated the early release of nearly 1,700 prisoners from the county jail last year.
Jail overcrowding has long been responsible for “triple bunking” and “floor sleeping among the inmates.” But nearly three years ago, jail administrators decreed that the situation had grown so intolerable that they were refusing to house all but the most serious of accused criminals. As a result, the jail will detain only a small percentage of the defendants charged with misdemeanors; all others are currently booked and released.
Brown’s proposed new jail, however, is notably smaller than the 800-bed facility that a private consultant predicted back in 1999 the county would need by 2020. It’s also smaller than the 400-bed jail proposed by Jim Thomas in 1999. But when Thomas took that plan to the voters, it got thrashed, with 61 percent voting against it and 39 percent in favor. Part of the problem was the high price tag-$53 million, and that was before construction costs had skyrocketed. But whatever the price, California voters are notoriously stingy when it comes to financing new jails.
Brown is hoping to finesse the construction costs of the new jail-$76 million-with substantial infusions of state aid. He said the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation could underwrite as much as two-thirds the construction costs-$55 million-and intends to submit an application later this month. This funding was approved by the California Legislature last year as part of a broader program to alleviate the state’s more serious prison overpopulation problem. The Department of Corrections is hoping to induce communities throughout California to take tens of thousands of prisoners and house them in proposed new state-run “re-entry” facilities (none currently exist). These institutions will be designed to provide nearly a year’s worth of training and rehabilitation for state inmates shortly before the completion of their sentences in hopes of slowing down the revolving door of recidivism that state prisons have become. Currently, roughly 1,000 state inmates return to Santa Barbara County each year, and Brown is among the most enthusiastic supporters of the new re-entry strategy.
But with or without a re-entry facility, the state aid will not cover the entire cost of building a new county jail. The county would have to pay for the remainder by issuing roughly $20 million in Certificates of Participation, a specialized form of governmental IOU.
The Blended Approach
What makes Brown’s jail proposal unique is its reliance on intervention and prevention programs. They are absolutely central to the plans. To the extent that they succeed, Brown said, the county won’t need as big a facility or nearly as many beds. In a best-case scenario, Brown estimated the right mix of intervention and prevention programs could cut the number of people booked into the county jail by as much as 21 percent. That translates into 210 fewer inmates a year. “Imagine 210 fewer criminals committing crime,” he said. “Imagine that year after year. Imagine how this helps break the cycle of violence.”
Brown described this as “the blended approach,” and likens it to an aquarium, where incoming infusions of water must be carefully balanced with water flowing out or the whole thing spills over. And that, he contends, is exactly what has happened to California’s prison system since the mid 1970s, when all pretenses at inmate rehabilitation were abandoned in favor of warehousing prisoners in large new prison complexes. “The problem is that warehousing worked for a while,” Brown said. “Crime rates went down. But as prison populations grew and grew and grew, so did the expenses associated with running the system. We simply don’t have the resources to maintain that approach anymore.” Prisoners come out less able to cope than when they went in. Within three years of their release, 70 percent of state prisoners commit new crimes that get them sent back. That, in part, explains why the California Department of Corrections finds itself trying to cram 170,000 prisoners in facilities designed to hold no more than 100,000. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is now confronting intense pressure from a panel of federal judges to reform the medical care afforded state prisoners. And that’s just the beginning. In this context, state corrections officials are hoping to alleviate the pressure on their existing penal warehouses by embracing “re-entry.”
Intervention, prevention, and rehabilitation are all labor-intensive. They all cost lots of money. So does running a jail. Brown figures that for every dollar he will spend administering the new county jail-estimated at about $12 million a year-roughly half that amount should be devoted to prevention efforts. He’s proposed the creation of a new standing committee, to be appointed by the Board of Supervisors, to dole out the funds and monitor how they’re spent. This new committee is modeled on the county’s First 5 program, which distributes the proceeds from actor Rob Reiner’s statewide ballot initiative to fund programs for kids during the first five years of their lives.
One of the key advantages of giving this new committee fiduciary and programmatic responsibility-as opposed to keeping it within the confines of a county government agency-is that the new entity can raise matching funds from private philanthropic sources while a governmental one could not.
In addition, Brown has concluded that local law enforcement agencies should receive the same amount as the prevention and intervention programs. In some ways, this was a strategic afterthought. Brown figured he could use the carryover to help out local law enforcement. That this might build a constituency of interested stakeholders come Election Day was hardly lost on Brown. If and when that day ever arrives, Brown and his funding measure will need all the help they can get. That’s because a two-thirds “super-majority” of the electorate is required to approve a tax increase.
Brown doesn’t pretend he thought up this blended plan all by himself. In fact, he takes pains to share the credit with the Blue Ribbon Commission on Jail Overcrowding that he created shortly after talking office last year. During his election campaign, Brown-who was Lompoc’s police chief at the time-had been derided by rivals as “too Mayberry” and too small-town to run so large a department and tame such intractable problems as jail overcrowding. How could he promise success when the four sheriffs who came before him failed? But Brown’s appointments to the Blue Ribbon Commission suggest his critics might have underestimated their foe. For starters, he named retired Silicon Valley executive Rick Roney to chair the committee. Roney moved to Santa Barbara eight years ago, and almost immediately threw himself into easing the way for state prisoners moving back to Santa Barbara. He founded his own private operation, which today is devising specialized re-entry plans for 80 prisoners soon to be returning home. It’s too soon to begin talking about results, Roney said, but already, he’s made a name for himself in Sacramento among corrections officials.
Brown also enlisted the services of Joan Petersilia, a part-time Santa Barbara resident and an academic supernova when it comes to penal reform. Petersilia now teaches at UC Irvine. Before that, she worked for 20 years with the RAND Corporation think tank. In recent years, she’s specialized on the hardships confronted by state prisoners returning to society. To the extent anyone has studied what programs work and which ones don’t, it’s Petersilia.
Also invited were plenty of high-ranking county bureaucrats, both current and retired, who know how to work the system. Jim Laponis served in the county administrator’s office for about 30 years and Sue Gionfriddo was the county probation department. And Dave Dorsey, who retired from the Sheriff’s Department six years ago, remembers how the department devised an ambitious intervention and prevention program way back in the ’70s. But that, he said, was scuttled by the supervisors in the face of budgetary concerns.
The 20-person commission met twice a month for nine months in the basement under the jail. Each meeting lasted four to five hours. Their ranks included experienced and knowledgeable players among factions that often don’t see eye-to-eye. Brown and Roney worried the group might get bogged down in polarized posturing, pitting prevention programs against incarceration. But that either/or rift never materialized.
No Prisoner Left Behind
What emerged was consensus on several crucial points. The first was that a new jail was desperately needed. The second was a hard-nosed appreciation that rehabilitation was not pie-in-the-sky and that a combination of intervention and prevention programs could keep potential offenders out of jail. The commissioners also agreed that the county could not afford to build the new jail without state aid, let alone run it. To do so, warned Laponis, would require the jail operation to rape and pillage the budgets of every other county department. “If not now, when? If not us, then who?” asked Laponis.
Brown made a point to also invite Robert Sanger-the criminal defense attorney who, on behalf of Dennis Boyd Miller, filed the initial lawsuit against the county for jail overcrowding-to be part of the commission. At the time of the suit, Sanger-now better known for his role in the Michael Jackson defense-said he heard complaints from many of his clients about how atrocious the jail was-no privacy, no space, sleeping on the floor, and the threat of violence. But none, he said, were willing to sue for fear of retaliation. When Miller voiced these same complaints, Sanger asked him if he was willing to file a lawsuit. “He said, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose,'” Sanger said.
At first, the case seemed destined to die a quick death. Judge Charlie Stevens vacillated between lethal indifference and outright hostility. But after publicly referring to Latinos as “Mexican jumping beans,” the judge found himself in trouble and the case was reassigned to Judge Bruce Dodds. Dodds and Dave Hardy, a reporter then with the News-Press, had themselves surreptitiously placed behind bars for a two-day stint to see what jail conditions were really like. After the first day, Dodds wanted out. But the case got real legs when a sheriff’s sergeant who worked at the jail agreed to testify as a witness. If the jail was too dangerous for prisoners, she told Sanger, it was too dangerous for the correctional deputies working there. Before long, two more sergeants came forward. It was then, Sanger said, that attorneys representing the county capitulated and admitted the jail was unconstitutionally overcrowded.
By then, the matter was before now-retired Judge William Gordon, a gruff ex-Marine who expected results. In 1986, Gordon ordered county officials to take whatever steps were necessary to alleviate the problem. Or else.
To meet the growing demand-and placate Gordon and Sanger-Sheriff Jim Thomas pursued a series of initiatives. He expanded the honor farm, he expanded the work furlough program, he built a new jail wing. He tried to winnow out the less dangerous inmates against whom society needed little defense. It was a constant struggle to find play in the system, and prisoners were still sleeping on the floor and triple bunking. After three inmates managed to escape, Thomas placed a cap on the number of inmates the jail would accept.
Sheriff Thomas also formed a task force, and invited Sanger to participate. Though the task force met frequently, when it came to creative solutions, it fell short. “It was always, ‘Gee, if we had more money we could fix this, but too bad we don’t,'” Sanger said. Unlike other county functions that enjoy substantial subventions from the state government, the county jail is paid for almost exclusively with locally generated tax dollars. And the county’s ability to increase revenues has been severely hamstrung ever since California voters approved Prop. 13 limiting property taxes back in 1978.
The real problem, Sanger said, was that the sheriff was forced to go it alone. Everyone recognized, for example, that the jail was no place to house the mentally ill. But the county’s Mental Health Department didn’t have the beds, so the mentally ill remained in the county jail.
Based on that experience, Sanger was initially skeptical about serving on yet another committee. But Brown made a believer out of him. “I’ve been fighting with the Sheriff [Department] ever since I moved to this town, so praise doesn’t come easily to me. But I have to tell you I’m really impressed with what Bill Brown has done,” he said. “Instead of saying, ‘You can’t get there from here,’ this group was charged with finding practical solutions to the problem and then taking them to the Board of Supervisors.”
Brown and Sanger agree that conditions at the jail have improved. Other members of the commission, like Casa Esperanza’s Executive Director Mike Foley, were impressed by how rundown the jail was not. “There was no rust; the light fixtures aren’t dangling from the ceiling,” he said. “What blew my mind most was how well-run the place was.”
Nevertheless, throughout the years, jail capacity has failed to keep pace with Santa Barbara’s population growth, let alone the increasingly tough-on-crime sentencing laws passed by the State Legislature. According to jail commander Geoff Banks, the number of violent incidents at the county jail has been rising almost every year. With 42 percent of the male population claiming gang membership, keeping rival gang members out of arms’ reach can be a challenge. The jail has also done its best to flush out lightweight nonviolent offenders. The honor farm, for example, was disbanded and replaced by a medium-security lockdown, a huge dorm room with triple-decker beds.
Even without overcrowding, most inmates serve only half their actual sentences. Now they’re getting out even earlier than that. Two years ago, one such early release-held on a DUI in North County-drove south and shot a Santa Barbara man he had never met who was pulling out of a driveway on De la Vina Street. But the more typical effect of overcrowding is more subtle than that. Sheriff Brown correctly boasts that the jail detox center is uncommonly effective. But due to funding and space constraints, the waiting list is often two months long. Many addicts will be released from jail before they have a chance to enter the program.
Santa Barbara County runs several drug court diversion programs that rely on the threat of a few days’ jail time-“flash incarceration”-to keep addicts focused on the task of getting clean and sober. When program participants test dirty, judges value the ability to place them behind bars for the weekend. But because of jail overcrowding, that’s become an empty threat. “Lives that could have been saved,” said Foley, “aren’t.” Three years ago, one North County judge grew so exasperated that one repeat petty crook and drug offender kept getting early release that he retaliated by imposing a $1 million bail on the man. It was a futile gesture. The bail made headlines, but it did not keep the man behind bars.
When Brown talks about the consequences of overcrowding, he doesn’t dwell on the dramatic failures. He sees the problem in more subtle, if profound, terms. “At a certain point, the criminal justice system has no teeth. There is no more accountability if you know you’re not going to jail for your behavior. The danger here is a longterm erosion of respect for the rule of law,” he said. “And all because there’s no room at the inn.”
On Tuesday, the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report was unveiled at the county Board of Supervisors meeting, where heartfelt thanks for the commission’s work were drowned out by a chorus of lingering concerns about finances and logistics. After hearing public comments from a supportive Sister Janet Corcoran, who does social work in North County, and a concerned Andy Caldwell-the conservative watchdog from the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business who chided the tax raise idea and complained about the millions already being spent on prevention and rehab-the supervisors seemed reluctant to chime in.
But an agitated Brooks Firestone jumped in, saying, “We’re broke.” Supervisor Salud Carbajal questioned whether the cash-strapped state would ever come through on its $55 million end of the bargain, while Supervisor Janet Wolf asked whether a 300-bed facility would be big enough. Supervisors Joe Centeno and Joni Gray also asked detailed questions, but no one braved discussing whether or not they’d support a half-cent sales tax raise-always a potentially volatile notion in politics.
Brown agreed that the funding schemes would have to be worked out during the three to five years that it would take to build the jail. But the Sheriff expressed optimism in a rebounding economy and urged the supervisors to take a “leap of faith.”
When it finally came time on Tuesday for a vote to simply receive the report, Firestone threatened to abstain, citing “great trepidation.” But after being urged to show his support for the commission’s work, Firestone joined the rest of the supervisors in unanimously accepting the report.
And that’s just the kind of urging the rest of the public will be hearing if it comes to approving a half-cent sales tax raise to make the Blue Ribbon Commission’s dream a reality.