Defense Attorneys Say Stop Building North County Jail

COVID Halved Jail Population, Sky Has Not Fallen

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An Open Letter to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors,

My name is Jeff Chambliss, and I am the president of Santa Barbara Defenders, a countywide organization of more than 40 local criminal defense practitioners. I am a past president of the Santa Barbara County Bar Association, and I was previously a chief trial deputy for the Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office. I have been actively practicing criminal defense in this county for 30 years.

On June 10, our organization proposed that you place a moratorium on money spent on additional jail beds. Specifically, we asked that you suspend funding the North County Jail. I spoke before you yesterday and made the same request again. I explained, both in writing and orally, that the $20 million per year has better uses than incarcerating more people of color and more African Americans in particular. As you are aware, African Americans make up barely 2 percent of our population but are nearly 10 percent of our jail population. This is unacceptable. If we double our jail population, we will see a dramatic increase in incarceration at great humanitarian and financial costs to the incarcerated individuals and their families; not to mention the continuing betrayal and erosion of the public’s trust in our justice system. Your constituents of all demographics demand bold action.

In my June 10 letter, I visited with you the history of the building of the North County Jail and what led to it being funded in the first place. I explained that to the extent that the voters were asked to pay a half cent in additional sales tax to build the jail, they rejected it twice: Measure U in 2000 and Measure S in 2010.

I also explained that to the extent that the County Board of Supervisors was ever persuaded to fund the building of the North County jail facility, those elements of persuasion are strikingly absent today:

1. There has been a sea change in political will for building new jails and prisons. The era of building new jails and prisons (contributing to the United States being the world’s leader in incarcerating its own people, and mostly people of color) is ending.

2. Recently, we have seen our existing jail population plummet, down by half, due to COVID and there has been no spike in crime. We couldn’t ask for better data on what incarcerating far fewer people looks like. It looks good. The sky is not falling as the result of it.

3.  One of the strongest arguments for the new jail — the promise to spend $2 in community intervention for every dollar spent on incarceration — has fallen by the wayside.

We anticipated the arguments in favor of keeping the plan to incarcerate more people, not less, in this county: (1) violent crime will skyrocket, (2) the existing jail is unsafe, and (3) that it is somehow now more costly to not fund it than to fund it.

What we did not anticipate was that your body would do nothing. We did not expect that you would be, collectively, tone deaf to the will of the public and the demand for change by Black Lives Matter. People are taking to the streets to demand bold action, and you are failing to meet that challenge. We did not anticipate that you would do something as meaningless as urging the Sheriff, the District Attorney, and “justice partners” to work together to incarcerate fewer people. This is not a response to our proposal, and it perpetuates mass incarceration. Our jail population is at an historic low (540 persons), crime is down, and the board continues to fund not one but two jails that will result in a least a doubling if not tripling of persons of color in custody, and African Americans in particular.

Most regrettably, your failure to act says to your African American constituents of our community, who are far more vulnerable to over-incarceration and over-policing, that their concerns are not being taken to heart. Once again, it’s time to heal wounds and reinvent criminal justice in a way that provides justice for all. It’s time to say to the African-American community that we hear you loud and clear while not also contributing to their marginalization in painfully obvious ways. Opening the new jail will be a step backward for our county. Deciding, on the other hand, to suspend the opening indefinitely is a courageous act that will be understood for what it is, an intelligent, data-driven rebalancing of the budget priorities called for at this time by the public. Once again, it is time to act. The public is now demanding nothing less.

J. Jeff Chambliss is president of the Santa Barbara Defenders.

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