On Jail, Santa Barbara Citizen Groups Tip the Scale

Organizations Push County Toward More Affordable Remodel

Vijaya Jammalamadaka, president of the Santa Barbara Chapter of the League of Women Voters, at a recent rally at the courthouse. | Credit: Courtesy

Santa Barbara has five community groups to thank for steering county officials toward a simpler and cheaper renovation of the aging Main Jail, County CEO Mona Miyasato told the Board of Supervisors this Tuesday, likely saving taxpayers millions and uniting leaders over a complex and controversial issue. 

“I want to say thank you to them,” Miyasato said at the top of her presentation to the supervisors. “Through our meetings with them — they’ve met with all of our different department heads — we changed our recommendation to your board. We thought a little bit harder and looked at different options.”

The League of Women Voters, CLUE (Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice), Santa Barbara Defenders, Families ACT!, and NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) had lobbied officials to abandon a complete $90 million overhaul of the jail and instead adopt a more modest $24 million proposal to carry out deferred maintenance work nearly all parties agree is necessary — mainly, to bring the 60-year-old facility into ADA compliance, make improvements to its medical and mental-health infrastructure, and modernize its HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems.

Perhaps most significantly, the groups also helped convince county leaders to delay a vote on the total remodel proposed by the Sheriff’s Office until a population study can be conducted to determine exactly how many beds will be needed at the 852-bed South County campus in the future, given the imminent opening of the 346-bed Northern Branch Jail and a drastically reduced inmate population brought on by COVID policy changes. Pre-pandemic, the inmate count hovered around 905; this week it was 644.

The pause for the study, argued The League of Women Voters and CLUE in a statement to the board, “will allow consideration of key innovations in jail design that assure humane conditions such as open floor plans, better access to exercise, and direct supervisions by corrections staff.” These things have been proved to better the health and safety of both inmates and guards, they said, and reduce recidivism. The assessment, expected to be completed spring 2022, will also assure funds are not spent unnecessarily on areas of the South County facility that will become obsolete if Santa Barbara’s overall inmate population remains the same or continues to decline, the groups said.

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In pushing for a larger scope of work, Sheriff Bill Brown has argued that jail figures are “artificially low” and certain to rise again once the pandemic ends. He’s likened any allocation of funds less than what he’s requested to “defunding the police.” Supervisor Das Williams previously accused Brown of perpetuating “bad facts” regarding state grant money and minimum bed requirements that got the board “bottlenecked” into believing it had no choice but to approve the full remodel.

Leading the charge among the supervisors for a more deliberate and limited rehab was Gregg Hart, who noted Santa Barbara’s criminal justice apparatus accounts for nearly a quarter of the county’s $1.35 billion budget. “These costs are the elephant in the room,” he said.

In prepared remarks that highlighted ongoing county reforms — including new publicly accessible data dashboards for the Probation Department and the jail, and a concerted effort to move old cases through the courts more quickly — Hart invoked a 2019 report published by the national Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice organization. It found that only 14 percent of people felt very supported by the justice system after they fell victim to a crime, and that by a nearly 5-1 margin, victims believe jails and prisons make inmates more likely to offend again. They expressed overwhelming favor for rehabilitation programs instead and interventive treatment for those with mental-health and substance-abuse issues.

“It’s important for us to put the needs of victims and survivors at the forefront of our criminal-justice-reform efforts,” Hart said. “We want to keep jail numbers down because it’s what victims want, it’s key to reducing recidivism, it’s the direction the state and other counties are going, because it saves taxpayers money, and, most importantly, it’s the right thing to do at this moment in history.”

Even Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, who had previously expressed concern that small jail numbers might mean more crime, voted in favor of the study and the possibility of fewer beds. “I just hope we can continue to balance this as we move forward,” he said. Lavagnino also thanked Hart for his leadership on the issue and the citizen groups for intervening. “People who’ve been talking about this for years are finally being heard,” he said.

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