Reforming Criminal Justice System Through a Thousand Tweaks
Santa Barbara Supervisors Praise Local Efforts to Divert Low-Level Offenders
In a moment of strategic theatrics, the county supervisors lavished praise on the District Attorney, the County Sheriff, the Probation Department, the courts, and the Public Defender for collaborating constructively on measures to divert low-level offenders from the criminal justice system into more cost-effective alternatives.
John Savrnoch of the DA’s Office talked about faster ways to share key pretrial information needed by both the defense and prosecution, which could significantly reduce the time inmates spend in County Jail awaiting trial. The supervisors also praised Probation Chief Tanja Heitman for crafting the first effective data dashboard that describes her department’s caseload in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, charges, sentences, and disposition. As basic as that may sound, such statistics have not previously been available for public discussion. (See sbprobation.org and look under Adult Services.) Next month, the Sheriff’s Office is slated to provide a similar dashboard.
The supervisors heard much discussion about “off-ramps” and “diversion strategies,” with much enthusiasm but few specifics. Currently, 6.7 percent of misdemeanor cases are referred to diversion programs. Everyone agreed the current system needs to be improved.
Supervisor Steve Lavagnino announced he was breaking the meeting’s “kumbaya” vibe by revisiting the case of a state prison inmate who fought four major wildfires while incarcerated and was seeking to have his record expunged so he could apply for a job as a firefighter. Lavagnino described how the inmate was convicted of beating his former girlfriend’s head bloody with a whiskey bottle and then hovered over her with a knife. The victim, who was a person of color, managed to escape, but the inmate chased after her. It was like a horror movie, Lavagnino said. Though the current system of locking people up does not work, Lavagnino acknowledged, he questioned whether not locking them up worked that much better.