Santa Barbara County Jail | Credit: Google Earth

Open Letter to the Board of Supervisors:

Please allow me to introduce myself:  My name is Jeff Chambliss, and I am president of the Santa Barbara Defenders (“SBD”). SBD is an organization of over 40 private criminal defense attorneys with practices in Santa Barbara County. Many of our clients are incarcerated in the Santa Barbara County Jail.

It is with grave concern that I am writing as we observe the numbers of persons incarcerated in the Santa Barbara County Jail tick upward from a pandemic low of below 550 to its current population of 650. And we observe, as well, that the county has put forth a Request For Proposal (“RFP”) to renovate the South County Jail for an ultimate cost to the taxpayers of $90 million dollars. This is exactly what we warned about when we spoke to you individually and when we addressed the Board. Not only is this the wrong direction for our community fiscally, but it’s also inhumane and undermines public safety.

The RFP makes it clear that the county intends to restore its “rated capacity” to 819 inmates, i.e., same “rated capacity” as it was when it, before the pandemic, housed over 1,000 people most of whom were people of color, many of whom were made to sleep on the floor. Combined with the North County Jail’s “rated capacity” of 376, that would give Santa Barbara County a “system wide capacity” of close to 1,200.

Of course, history teaches us that these facilities will operate at over-capacity and what the county is really doing is ensuring that over 1500 persons will be incarcerated, on average, on any given day. Let’s be blunt: “system wide capacity” is a euphemism for poor people and people of color being incarcerated en masse. Will this be your legacy?

Please do not spend upward of $100 million — and it will certainly go over budget — to renovate the South County Jail to cage more poor human beings and human beings of color. We simply do not need 1,200 jail beds in our county. Our county’s population is not growing by any significant degree and crime is not on the rise. The pandemic has led us to the naked truth that mass incarceration does not drive crime rates downward. In fact, by disrupting the lives of the incarcerated and their dependents, we are led to more economic desperation in already economically distressed communities which does increase crime.

Our jail is or was at half its “normal” population during the last year and crime was down. We do not accept the assertion of the CEO’s Office that the “system wide capacity” was a matter for negotiation between solely Sheriff Brown and the BSSC? It’s not. Where is the public/transparent vote on this issue? The board controls the budget. Please don’t fund the proposed renovation. Please allocate zero dollars for increased incarceration.

Further, why is the Board allowing an RFP that uses pre-pandemic jail population figures as the basis of renovating the South County Jail? In what way is this possibly considered sound and data-driven policy making?

It seems that the board does not like to talk about putting a hard cap on mass incarceration. Why? There seems to be little political appetite among the board members to confront law enforcement on its plan to increase the size of our incarcerated population considerably which, as we all know, ends up meaning hundreds more people of color will locked up at a huge human and economic cost to our community. Crime will go up, not down. Some of our leaders, instead, seem to like to talk about diversion programs like “Stepping Up” and other “transitional” programming. As well-intended as these thoughts and programs are, history shows us that if you build it, they will fill it. In truth, the only fiscally sound and reliable way to curtail mass incarceration in Santa Barbara County at this juncture is to not fund the renovation of the South County Jail. You have the power of the purse. Please swing it in the right direction.


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