Could Reducing Santa Barbara Jail Population Be Historic and Permanent?

Less People in County Jail, Less Crimes Reported, and More Divergent Programs in the Works

This way to county jail. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

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BLACK AND TAN:  Sometimes you see what you want to see. Other times, you see what you need to see. Last Thursday, I got to see both during an extraordinary meeting convened by the county supervisors to discuss safer, cheaper, and more just alternatives to locking people up in the county jail.

The meeting—held in response to the escalating COVID crisis coupled with the political whirlwind known as Black Lives Matter—suggested an alarming outburst of sanity: perhaps even an epidemic. At the risk of hyperventilating, we appear to be on the precipice of a historic moment.

Here are a few basic facts.

As of the last week, only 578 inmates were in the Santa Barbara County Jail. To put that in perspective, in July 2007 the number was 1,268. In July 2019, it was 898. Mostly, the jail population has hovered around 1,000 inmates. 

Probation Chief Tanja Heitman: No evidence shows longer probation terms work.

The very real threat of mass infection posed by the COVID virus to both prisoners and jail staff, forced the sheriff, various city police chiefs, the district attorney, the public defender, County Probation, the presiding judge, and Behavioral Wellness to accept the fact that diverting prisoners, so long as they did not pose public safety threats, was urgently needed. 


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The preliminary numbers are encouraging. The jail population was reduced by 37 percent since March, and thus far, there’s been no attendant crime wave. In fact, it’s been just the opposite. Of the 476 inmates allowed to leave on early release since March 19, only 12 percent have been re-arrested. Of the 338 individuals diverted from jail through supervised pretrial release program, less than one percent of them ran into trouble with the law.

Since then, sheriff’s deputies booked 1,889 fewer accused offenders into the county jail than they booked the same four months the previous year. In the City of Santa Barbara, cops made 20 percent fewer felony arrests and 55 percent fewer misdemeanor arrests and issued 55 percent fewer citations. In that same time, about 1,700 people countywide were issued citations ordering them to show up to court at a later date; in a pre-COVID universe, they would have been booked into county jail.

With all that happening, the numbers for murders, rapes, assaults, and burglaries either dropped or increased nominally. Robberies, for example, increased from 8 to 12. Larceny and theft went from 330 to 435. All other Part I crimes—the most serious kind—went down.

For Part II crimes—those deemed less severe—the plunge was enough to make your eardrums implode. They went from 2,199 last year (March-May) to 1,503.

Maybe these numbers will get worse over time. It’s possible. But in the meantime, given the high recidivism rate and cost — about 70 percent and $170 a night in jail, respectively — a majority of county supervisors are now seriously wondering whether it’s time to try something different. Not to mention that over half the people in county lockup — at any given time — are still awaiting trial. In other words, they have yet to be found guilty. Until COVID, most were there because they could not post bail.

These are not new problems. What’s new is the apparent interest in doing something about it. If and when the COVID crisis ever abates, there’s no appetite for cramming 300-400 genies back into the bottle of county jail.

Infusing all this with an irresistible political urgency is Black Lives Matter, who showed up en masse via the telephonic squawk box to state the undeniable: People in jail tend to be disproportionately poor, Black, and brown. Public Defender Tracy Macuga testified 75 percent of her department’s total cases involved defendants of color.

Public Defender Tracy Macuga: 75 percent of defendants are Black or brown.

Jail overcrowding is nothing new. In fact, it’s constituted a serious legal, moral, and law-enforcement challenge for the county since 1981. That’s when a hapless hitman from Seattle named Dennis Boyd Miller sued the county sheriff for running an unconstitutionally congested and inhumanely administered county jail. Looking at life without parole, Miller had nothing to lose and agreed to be lead plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit. 

More recently, a stubborn coalition of mental-health advocates has been leading the charge for criminal justice reform. Fueled by grief and despair, these activists — mostly mothers of adult children — have successfully secured meaningful, though decidedly incremental, improvements. Into this fray, a statewide organization, Disability Rights California, sued Sheriff Bill Brown and the entire county government, alleging, among other things, that mentally ill inmates were dumped into the jail’s pink rubber-walled solitary confinement cells without care or treatment. That lawsuit, coincidentally, just settled last week.

DA Joyce Dudley: Felony diversion on table for first time.

Conspicuously, Sheriff Brown and DA Joyce Dudley — for all their caveats and cautionary notes — did not put up a fight this past Thursday. Dudley — a Head Start preschool teacher before she became a crusading prosecutor — vowed to support a brand-new diversionary program targeting defendants accused of felonies. (Such programs now exist only for people accused of misdemeanors.) She also supported expanding an experimental restorative justice program — where defendants make restitution to the victim rather than serve time — that’s said to have had positive results. 

Sheriff Bill Brown: “Divert to what?”

Brown said he liked the sound of “diversion” in theory but posed what’s always been the $64 million question: “Divert to what?” he demanded. 

It’s a legitimate question. But Behavioral Wellness czar Alice Gleghorn answered Brown’s challenge by highlighting the new 16-bed forensic psych facility that’s going up on the South Coast and the 34 beds her department has secured in an acute-care facility in Lompoc. Likewise, she trumpeted the success of the new co-response units, in which sheriff’s deputies and mental-health workers patrol together. These teams responded to 759 callsfor service by people experiencing mental-health crisis. Of those, only 10 wound up getting arrested. The others, Gleghorn noted, got funneled into more appropriate treatment.

Mental Health Czar Alice Gleghorn: 58 percent in county jail have mental-health or substance-abuse histories.

But you might ask: What did any of this have to do with defunding the police? What did it have to do with banning chokeholds? What did it have to do with creating a civilian review board to bird-dog use of force by law enforcement and another commission to expunge the department of its systemic racism? To be honest, not much.

The real question they have yet to tackle is how much of the money saved by running a less-crowded jail can be diverted to community programs that address the downstream impact of racism. To the extent they focused on any of the hot-button issues, it was to declare that the 1927 plaque on a large rock at the courthouse’s Figueroa Street entrance — honoring “the white women” who crossed the desert with the Spanish explorers making up De Anza expedition—had to be removed. “Get rid of the damn rocks,” Supervisor Gregg Hart stated. Supervisor Peter Adam, the sole Trump supporter on the board, objected. Such an action, he stated, would be worthy only of “Bolsheviks, the cultural revolution, and the Taliban.” 

All these years passing that rock on my way to cover trials, I never once noticed that plaque or what it said.

So much, I guess, for seeing what you want.


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