DOWN THE DRAIN: A week after the fact and my jaw still remains down by my ankles. Last Tuesday, the county supervisors voted to give money back to the state, $40 million to be precise. That’s a lot. This action contravenes all known laws of nature. Once the distracting ephemera of ideology is dispensed with, the chief function of any elected official is to get the money, not return it. But last week, the supervisors voted to return $40 million to the California Board of State and Community Corrections. This money had been secured to build a new, touchy-feely, kinder, gentler 238-bed annex to the more traditional new jail approved for North County. According to boosters of what’s dubbed the STAR Complex, the new wing would offer a state-of-the-art, dorm-like learning environment where end-of-sentence inmates could get a crash course in how not to “recidivate” before being tossed into the swirling winds of freedom. Like the new, more lock-’em-up 376-bed North County Jail, the STAR Complex was the brainchild of Sheriff Bill Brown, who was first elected in 2008 on the “anti-recidivate” platform. To the extent any rational sense can be made of last week’s vote, it’s that the long-festering bad blood between Brown and the supervisors had grown — gratuitously, stupidly, needlessly — so radioactive the EPA should have intervened and declared it an environmental disaster.
I spent enough time the past week talking to the warring parties that I can now hang out my shingle as marriage and family therapist. As expected, everyone has their points and everyone’s to blame, though not necessarily equally. Brown failed utterly and miserably to keep the supervisors in the loop as he absolutely needed to do. That someone as smart and talented as the sheriff could mess up so badly is inexplicable. Likewise, if the supervisors didn’t understand key details of the STAR proposal enough to ask the big questions when it counted, why not? (The supes say by the time they knew what questions to ask, it was already too late.) At last count, the STAR Complex had been the focus of 17 hours of board discussion over the past two years. If supervisors felt Brown played bait-and-switch on them regarding the provision of mental-health services in either of the new jail facilities — the single biggest chicken bone in their collective craw — they should have intervened sooner and more forcefully.
Only at the very last minute — on December 8 — did Brown finally get the message. That’s when he proposed a seat-of-the-pants redesign — all but scribbled on the proverbial soggy bar napkin — that would have set aside 50 beds for the mentally ill and another 50 beds for those fighting addiction. Brown’s critics correctly wondered why it took him so long, while simultaneously objecting how egregiously he was violating the process by which so momentous a decision should be made. Ultimately, the supes voted not to allow Brown to submit these revisions to the state funding board to see if the changes could be deemed in keeping with the scope of the initial grant application. In other words, they pulled the plug and wrapped it three times around Brown’s neck and yanked with all their might.
My only point is this: Fifty beds for the mentally ill is 50 beds we need and 50 beds we don’t have right now.
Likewise 50 beds for recovery is 50 beds we don’t have right now.
And somehow in all the past 50 years, the correct process by which things should get done has never managed to produce a gob of spit for the mentally ill and the addicted, let alone 100 desperately needed beds.
Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see what other point there is.
So now what? The county, it turns out, owns a lot of vacant land. The county also enjoys one of the highest credit ratings on the planet and is encumbered with hardly any debt. Now is the time for the supervisors to exploit all that land and great credit to incur serious enough debt to build some serious housing for the mentally ill. No more hand-wringing. No more excuses. Do it.
Jail overcrowding still remains an issue. Rather than building more jail cells, it’s time the supervisors took an equally serious look at bail reform. Seventy-five percent of the people in the county jail are awaiting trial. Many, as Brown notes, are hardly “debutantes.” But many are in for crimes that pose no serious threat to life or limb. Many — and we don’t know how many — remain behind bars only because they can’t raise the bail. California, it turns out, sets the highest bail of any state in the union. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, California median bail — $50,000 — is five times higher than the national average and is only getting bigger, having increased 22 percent between 2002 and 2012. Not coincidentally, California has the highest rate of pretrial detention in the country. Santa Barbara’s bail schedule ranks among the second highest of four tiers in California and also has one of the highest rates of pretrial detainees — 75 percent — in the state. High bails are justified as a deterrent to reoffenders and no-shows at trial. But despite our stratospheric bails, California also boasts the highest rate of no-shows. In Santa Barbara, inmates released on their own recognizance — no bail — have a no-show rate of only 2 percent. Some counties deem 15 percent acceptable. Some counties also use scientifically designed algorithms to determine which inmates pose the great risk to reoffend. Typically, these counties keep fewer pretrial inmates behind bars. Other counties have adopted various pretrial service programs to keep nonserious offenders out of jail while awaiting trial. Experts discovered this dramatically decreases the tendency of nonserious offenders to “recidivate.” Santa Barbara county officials only recently started looking at these approaches. I’d say they need to start squinting.
In the meantime, $40 million, indeed