LOCK ’EM UP: Tuesday’s budget-busting spit fest between the county supervisors and Sheriff Bill Brown over Brown’s proposed new North County Jail conjured the ghost of the late, great Everett McKinley Dirksen, former Republican Senate leader and icon, who famously opined, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
Dirksen — who spent 36 years representing Illinois as a flip-flopping, pragmatic deal maker — was better known as the “Wizard of Ooze” due to his oleaginous voice and theatrical oratorical style. Any such stylistic mojo was conspicuously absent this Tuesday as the county supes — grim and squinty eyed with undisguised skepticism — peppered Brown’s brigade of bean counters with every possible question except the most important one.
The stakes could not be higher. On the table is the biggest, most expensive public works contract short of the Highway 101 freeway widening. Everyone agrees that the existing county jail on Calle Real is a festering rathole, not-so-quietly crumbling in on itself. For Brown — and every sheriff since 1973 — the construction of a new jail in North County has beckoned as both Holy Grail and Moby Dick. To date, no sheriff other than Brown has gotten within harpoon range. Later this month, bid packages are slated to go out. But after such literary allusions are stripped from Brown’s cosmic quest, the question remains who will get soaked the most.
Going into Tuesday’s meeting, all five supervisors were officially done with Brown’s numbers, which they complained changed with such strobe-like frequency they could induce epileptic seizures. It turns out Brown’s father had worked as an advance man for evangelist superstar Billy Graham, and that pedigree came across loud and clear this Tuesday. Brown preached the gospel of redemption, hope, and rehabilitation with intense conviction. For good measure, he added a few heaping spoonfuls of pork-barrel politics. He’d gone to Sacramento and secured — amazingly and heroically — $120 million in grants that would enable the county to build not one, but two new facilities for 10 cents on the dollar. Who in their right mind could turn down money like that? Think of the jobs, Brown argued; think of the contracts. Think of the lost souls who could be turned around in the new state-of-the-art facilities programmed to maximize successful reentry of inmates. Powerful stuff.
But here’s the rub. When Brown started out his quest, the county jail was egregiously overcrowded. Triple-bunking and floor-sleeping were the rule, not the exception. Little wonder the ACLU sued the jail in 1981, alleging cruel and unusual punishment on behalf of a contract killer from Seattle who offed a South African diamond smuggler who passed himself off in town as a ruggedly macho artsy-fartsy type. Since then, for a host of reasons, the county jail’s average daily population has gone down, down, down. The jail remains terrible, but overcrowded it’s not.
When Brown first unveiled the findings of his Blue Ribbon Task Force on jail overcrowding in 2008, he proposed building a 300-bed jail in North County. And no less than $6 million a year, he declared, would go to programs, rehab, and therapies designed to help prevent the addicted and mentally ill from perpetuating their cycles of incarceration. Today Brown is now proposing to build two separate facilities with 604 beds between them. That’s twice what he initially proposed. This would give Santa Barbara a total capacity of 1,200 jail beds. Given that the jail’s current daily population is now about 850, that seems excessive. Obviously crime rates change, but we’re at a 40-year low.
Brown increased the number of proposed beds only after Governor Jerry Brown — threatened with a federal takeover of California’s Department of Corrections — divested his criminally overcrowded state prisons of low-level offenders. Brown freaked out. He worried — not unreasonably — his jail would be slammed and crammed with new inmates working off the remnants of their state sentences. The facts, however, proved dramatically otherwise. County probation has achieved miraculously low recidivism rates among these state prison cast-offs, offering a range of services and programs that seem to actually work.
Brown’s plan is to shut down the worst wings of the existing jail and to use the excess capacity provided by the North County jails to handle the load. I get it. But I’m not clear what happened to all the mental-health care that was initially promised for the North County facility. In the first facility to be built — 376 beds — the licensed care wing initially envisioned has evaporated. It didn’t pencil out, we are told. In its place, there are now 32 “special use beds.” Of those, an indeterminate number would go to the mentally ill. Given the crushing mental-health challenges in county jails, that’s not floating my boat.
Most of the touchy-feely programs have been slated for what’s called the Sheriff’s Transition and Reentry (STAR) complex, where a veritable smorgasbord of restorative reentry programs — including dog obedience — awaits those occupying the 228 beds. To pay for all this, the only number I heard Tuesday was $1.4 million, most of which comes from inmate phone charges. Maybe I missed something, but that doesn’t sound the same as $6 million.
The biggest, scariest question remains where will the extra $15 million-$20 million — depending which numbers you accept — come from to staff and run the new jails. In recent years, the county’s been squirrelling money away — a million here, a few million there — to cover the anticipated annual operational costs. I wonder where the additional money will come after year one. I know there are graphs and charts that purport to show this is all economically sustainable, but to my untrained mind, it seems like voodoo economics and magical thinking. I hope I’m wrong. But if not, I wonder what other programs will have to be cannibalized to cover the costs of the new jail. Like Everett Dirksen said, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”