Santa Barbara Public Defender Calls for Release of Low-level Offenders

Coronavirus Can Spread Rapidly in the Crowded Jail

Santa Barbara County public defender Tracy Macuga | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

The Santa Barbara Public Defender’s Office called for the immediate release of all low-level offender inmates who are the most susceptible to contracting the COVID-19 virus.

“We are dealing with a public health crisis,” said Public Defender Tracy Macuga. “By releasing vulnerable detainees who present a low risk of harm to the community, we will allow the jail staff to better implement recommended preventative measures such as social distancing, frequent handwashing, and cleaning of surfaces.

“We are concerned that at its current capacity, we may be placing inmates and jail staff at unnecessary risk, and further endangering our entire community,” she said.

The call requests that inmates who are over the age of 60 or have underlying medical issues that make them more susceptible to the virus be released from the jail immediately, so long as they are low-level offenders. Low-level offenders may include felons, too. They have a list of 40 inmates so far that would meet the criteria, though the list is still being compiled.

The Independent reached out to the Sheriff’s Office for a response to the call, but they declined to comment. Shortly after, the Sheriff’s Office announced that an employee, a San Luis Obispo resident who works in one of the jail control rooms, tested positive for COVID-19 after coming into close contact with 12 Sheriff’s Office, county, and medical contract employees — who are all now self-isolating in their homes.

Senior Deputy Public Defender Mark Saatjian said releasing the vulnerable inmates is especially important not just because of the close living quarters, but also because of hygiene concerns that make it impossible for them to follow the Health Department’s guidelines. Inmates without money rely on a weekly “Indigent Kit” for hygiene products. Known as the “fish kit,” it contains a pencil, a razor, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, and a small bar of soap.

“I’ve been told that the soap in the kit is roughly the size of a business card folded in half,” Saatjian said. “This is the soap you use for showering. This is the soap for hand washing after using the bathroom. If you want to wash your hair, you rub the same little bar of soap into your hair. There is no separate source of shampoo.”

The call also asked the court and the District Attorney’s Office to “offer more opportunities for house arrest, stipulate to own recognizance releases, and commute the sentences of those individuals who have 90 days or less left to serve on their sentences.” This request came after the court announced it is only holding custody arraignment cases, but it will cease non-arraignment matters such as trials, motions, and sentencings.

“The Public Defenders’ job is to rigorously represent their clients,” District Attorney Joyce Dudley said in response to the Public Defender’s call. “My job, as the chief law enforcement official, is to rigorously ensure justice for all and public safety.”

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