Could COVID Permanently Cure Santa Barbara’s Overcrowded Jail?

County Supervisors to Examine Permanently Reducing Incarceration Rates

Santa Barbara County Jail | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

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One of the brightest silver linings of the otherwise disastrous coronavirus pandemic has been the dramatic decrease in the Santa Barbara County Jail’s average daily population, or ADP. Since mid-March, the jail’s ADP has been reduced by almost 37 percent from 900-950 people to 550-600 people ​— ​the lowest it’s been in decades ​— ​in order to minimize the risk of infection and transmission within the confined and congested facility. 

This Thursday, July 16,  the Board of Supervisors will examine whether this change could be made permanent. They’ll hear a presentation from Undersheriff Bernard Melekian, now an Assistant County Executive Officer. “The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day prompted a national outcry for greater racial and social equity, particularly in the field of criminal justice,” he wrote in his report. “In reviewing various aspects of the criminal justice system in the county, one of the most significant issues is the need to reduce the number of incarcerated people.”


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Melekian attributed the drop in ADP to three main strategies ​— ​law enforcement agencies writing more citations in lieu of making physical arrests in the field; the District Attorney and Public Defender departments increasing the number of people being released under pretrial supervision, with and without electronic monitoring; and mental-health programs funneling more people to the crisis stabilization and the sobering centers instead of jail.

Melekian also made special mention of the county’s relatively new co-response team, a deputy sheriff and behavioral wellness specialist who respond together to calls of persons experiencing mental-health crises. “The program has been enormously successful,” Melekian said, noting that from March to May 2020 alone, the co-response teams responded to 759 calls, only 10 (1.3 percent) of which resulted in an arrest.

“The ADP reduction produced by the COVID response protocols has been clear and significant,” Melekian said. “What is less clear is the long-term public safety impacts of this reduction to the jail population.” While overall misdemeanors have dropped by 31.6 percent compared to the same time period last year, Melekian explained, certain types of felonies have risen in number, mainly larceny and auto theft, which jumped by 31.8 percent and 17.6 percent, respectively. Assaults and burglaries, however, fell by 12.5 percent and 26.1 percent, respectively.


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