Santa Barbara County Jail (April 2012)
Paul Wellman

Sheriff Bill Brown gambled a bit earlier this year when he gave up $56.3 million in funding from the state in pursuit of potentially even more money for a new North County Jail.

It was a calculated, safe risk, but a risk nonetheless.

Thursday, Brown found out his gamble paid off when the state announced Santa Barbara County would receive an additional $20 million tacked onto an already received $60 million in funding for the jail. The $80 million total amounts to the full sum Brown requested, and the maximum a mid-sized county could’ve received out of the state’s granting for new county jails around California. “It was a risk to a degree, but a risk worth taking,” Brown said Tuesday. “The strategy worked out and we got it.”

The announcement brings the county one step closer to getting a new North County Jail built. For decades Santa Barbara has recognized the need for a new facility, and in fact has been overcrowded in violation of the law for more than 20 years. Not only is the current jail overcrowded but it is also an aging structure filled with more dangerous criminals than ever.

A snapshot of the jail on July 31 showed there are 61 inmates being held on murder or attempted murder charges. The jail is at 122 percent capacity, according to officials. The main jail, which has a capacity of 627, is currently housing 705. The medium security facility has a capacity of 161 but currently holds 258 inmates. But even more disconcerting than the general population numbers are specifics on who is being housed there. Of the 963 total inmates, 264 are serving a sentence, while the rest are still pre-trial, on trial, or awaiting a parole hearing.

In 2008, Brown secured $56.3 million in funding through the first phase of Assembly Bill 900 granting. That original funding was for a 306-bed facility. But he relinquished that money in pursuit of the $80 million, a proposal which would also require less local matching costs, and also allow Brown to build a 376-bed facility with units for medical and mental health. He was reasonably confident he would get the $80 million, but even that wasn’t guaranteed when he gave up the lesser amount.

Of course, while finding funding for the construction of the jail has been a long time coming, it’s not even the greatest of concerns for Brown; the funding to actually operate the jail is most worrisome.

Brown needs about $17 million a year to keep the jail up and running, at a time when the county — and Brown’s department more specifically — has undergone unprecedented budget cuts. Brown and County CEO Chandra Wallar have concocted an incremental savings plan that would eventually put Santa Barbara in a position to fund the jail operations once it opens in 2017.

Last year, the supervisors voted to start contributing to the fund, putting in an initial $1 million. They tacked on $2 million more this year. Next year, according to the CEO’s plans, the board will set aside $3.3 million. By 2017-2018, the fund would have $22.9 million in it and start being drawn down for the jail operation. But that’s only if the board of supervisors continue to set the money aside.

Because of how far Brown has advanced this plan, it will be tough for the supervisors to say no. Saying no would be turning down unprecedented progress on building a new jail. But setting aside millions of dollars a year every June is also a tough pill to swallow as the board has been decimating county programs and employee positions because of budget deficits. “It’s critical we stick to the plan,” Brown said. And time is of the essence, because the $80 million grant won’t be around forever.

The Sheriff will first give a presentation to the county’s Debt Advisory Committee, which will figure out what the source of funds will be for the matching amount. He plans to go to the board of supervisors in September. If they vote to move forward, construction of the jail is expected to take five years.


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