Vote Yes on Measure S

The Independent's Endorsement of the Half-Cent Tax to Build a New Santa Barbara County Jail

Santa Barbara County Jail
Paul Wellman (file)

If common sense, financial self-interest, or human decency held sway, Measure S would be a slam dunk. Unfortunately, new jail measures are notoriously hard to pass, in part because they — like all tax increases — require a two-thirds supermajority to win voter approval. But for Santa Barbara County voters, Measure S poses the last, best, and only realistic crack at building a much-needed new jail, and we urge you to support it.

No matter what you think about the fairness or sanity of certain laws, the need for a new jail is factually incontrovertible. Our current jail was built in 1971, but by 1986, a population cap was ordered in response to a lawsuit filed by inmates. Since then, as previous sheriffs have struggled to find more space, the Grand Jury has issued one harrowing study after another about jail overcrowding. In 2000, then-sheriff Jim Thomas proposed a sales tax to fund a new jail that was rejected by voters. Six years ago, Lompoc’s police chief Bill Brown managed to upset the entrenched incumbent, Sheriff Jim Anderson, largely by laying out a strategy for building the new jail. This November 2, that strategy faces its toughest test.

Our current jail features about 800 beds, but on any given weekend, the real population is closer to 1,000 inmates. These numbers, however, only hint at the real problems. In the past 10 years, the average jail inmate has grown considerably more violent. Ten percent are behind bars either for murder or attempted murder, nearly 40 percent for gang-related offenses. Mixing and matching inmate populations to minimize violent eruptions has become an art akin to dancing with nitroglycerine. Making matters more explosive, at least 25 percent of all prisoners are prescribed psychotropic medications while the vast majority struggle with various addictions.

The 305-bed facility proposed for North County, where most of the people in custody come from, will cost $80 million to build and about $17 million a year to run— that’s serious money. But Brown’s already secured a commitment of $56 million in state funds to cover most of the construction costs — that’s serious money, too. The remaining construction costs and operating expenses would come from the $30 million a year that Measure S would generate in sales tax revenues during its 14-year life span. But building and running the jail would take only half the money provided by Measure S. The remaining $15 million a year would be split three ways between fire protection, law enforcement, and, most critically, prevention and intervention programs designed to keep people out of jail.

While all three categories need serious financial help, we’re convinced the contribution to prevention and, for those already in jail, intervention will make the biggest, most immediate difference. While we would have preferred even more support, the estimated $70 million during the next 14 years will have an undeniably profound impact on programs dealing with the mentally ill, the addicted, the homeless, and those drawn to gang life. We recognize that county jails are less than ideal treatment venues for people struggling with these demons, but we also know that, without a credible threat of incarceration, many won’t pursue the treatment they need. With about 1,800 inmates released early each year due to overcrowding, no such threat exists anymore in Santa Barbara County. This reality negates any rehabilitation that the county jail could provide while simultaneously undermining any potential for deterrence.

We understand new taxes are never popular, especially during a recession. But if Measure S passes, county residents will actually experience a half-cent reduction in their sales-tax burden. That’s because a statewide one-cent sales tax will expire at the same time Measure S goes into effect. Plus, unlike other taxes, Measure S is strictly local — revenues will be collected and spent solely in Santa Barbara County under the watch of a citizens advisory committee appointed by the supervisors to ensure funds are spent as they should be.

We understand there are plenty of misgivings about Measure S, including the legitimate concern about using the criminal justice system to further perpetuate social inequities. But those issues won’t be addressed by voting against Measure S, as the status quo only intensifies them. There’s not a shred of research showing any social benefit from jail overcrowding. The evidence to the contrary, however, is overwhelming. Please vote yes for Measure S.


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