JAIL UNVEILED: Sheriff Bill Brown and County General Services Director Janette Pell did the honors at last Thursday’s ribbon cutting for the new North County Jail. | Courtesy of S.B. County Sheriff’s Office

It might not have been Moses descending from Mt. Sinai holding the 10 Commandments aloft, but by Santa Barbara standards, it was in some ways the next best thing. Last Thursday, Sheriff Bill Brown held a ceremonial ribbon cutting for the new North County Jail he promised to build when he first ran for office in 2006. Fifteen years later, 400 people showed up to celebrate an accomplishment that eluded two former sheriffs, Jim Thomas and Jim Anderson. 

During his remarks, Brown spoke about how he had traveled around the country, inspecting other facilities to find what worked and what didn’t. “We wanted it to be bright, modern, and clean. We certainly didn’t want it to have the appearance of an assemblage of cages,” he said. “There’s not a single metal bar in this jail. We wanted it to be a place of inspiration and learning and hope.” To underscore this point, Brown noted, the Latin phrase Faber est quisque fortunae suae had been inscribed over the archway of the entrance: “Every person is the architect of their own destiny.”

Brown also borrowed a line from Nelson Mandela, who had famously remarked, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” By that measurement, Santa Barbara’s main jail just off Calle Real — built in 1971 — has long reflected poorly on the Santa Barbara community. It has been the subject of “cruel and inhuman” lawsuits almost from the day it opened. A hodgepodge of improvised wings and hallways, it was stitched together over time to deal with the chronic overcrowding. In less dire terms, Brown likes to describe the jail as the county’s version of the Winchester Mystery House.

When Brown first ran for countywide office, he preached the gospel of diversion, recovery, prevention — anything that would lower the jail’s stubborn recidivism rate. He promised his new jail, which was built to house 376 inmates, would embody these core values. In the years since, however, the political winds blowing on criminal justice have shifted dramatically. Today, the perceived problem is the laws and criminal justice enforcement infrastructure that enforces them.

Nationally and locally, the cripplingly high costs of incarceration coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement and the urgent safety restrictions demanded by COVID have created a new right-meets-left coalition dedicated to keeping all but the most dangerous of defendants out of jail. When the COVID curtain fell, the average daily population of the County Jail plunged from 950 to less than 600. A majority of supervisors pushed Brown hard to keep that number down. The new numbers demonstrated, they insisted, that public safety did not require so many people be locked up. 

That argument remains far from resolved. 

What no one contests, however, is that the new North County Jail will be infinitely safer and saner than the present jail. It boasts more natural sunlight and carpeted floors to dampen the noise, and it will provide therapy dogs and cats for the people incarcerated there. It also has better sightlines, so it will require fewer deputies to oversee inmate safety and allow remedial programs without as much risk. The price tag, however, has been astronomically steep. 

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The initial ballpark estimate had been $77 million. The first conceptual budget was $96.1 million. But when actual bids started to come in, the price tag was $110 million. Today — after multiple delays, bankruptcies, and some major litigation that’s yet to be resolved — the final costs are pegged at $120 million. The jail’s December 2021 opening was originally slated to be in April 2019.

And that doesn’t count the roughly $20 million a year it will cost to staff and operate the facility. 

Brown, one of the county’s most accomplished political actors at any level of government, used every tool at his disposal to get the jail built. When the first state grant for $56 million didn’t pan out, Brown put a sales tax initiative before county voters in 2010; that failed miserably. Ultimately, however, Brown — an influential figure in statewide law enforcement circles — secured an $86 million state grant that would cover 80 percent of construction costs. 

But it was plagued by delays and challenges, including a 287-day halt when the architectural company declared bankruptcy and the need to accommodate the wildlife on the site, including hawks, owls, and a feral kitten his rescuers dubbed “El Chapo.”

Last week’s event came at a time when Brown — now about to run for his fifth term — finds himself increasingly under fire. The more liberal South Coast supervisors wonder how many jail beds are actually needed. Money that could be spent on beds, they argue, should go instead to diversion and prevention programs that might keep people out of jail in the first place. Brown points to a jump in murders and gun violence, arguing that natural fluctuations in the crime rate require more beds than the diversion-minded South County supervisors contend is warranted. Without the threat of incarceration, Brown argues, many offenders will refuse treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. 

But the real problem, at least according to County Probation Chief Tanja Heitman, is that COVID, has resulted in people who are not being arrested for drug- and alcohol-related offenses. Instead, they are cited and released. Pre-COVID, she said, many of these defendants would have been arrested, booked, and then — assuming nonviolent criminal histories — they would have been assessed for a pre-trial diversion program into the appropriate treatment and recovery program. Thanks to COVID, she stated, that level of assessment is not happening. Likewise, 24 of the county’s 86 rehab beds have been shut down; for one, the provider — Salvation Army — can’t muster enough of a staff to meet minimal staffing requirements. 

In the meantime, the presiding judge of the Santa Barbara court system issued on October 26 an advisory notice stating that cash bail can now be issued for low-level offenses for which a warrant — typically for failure to appear — has been issued. Under the county’s interpretation of statewide emergency orders, cash bail had been prohibited in such cases. Since then, about five more defendants are now being booked into the County Jail than are being released. Before then, the number leaving and entering the jail a day had been the same. In two weeks, the jail population size expanded by 78 inmates. The vast majority of these are charged with felonies and are unsentenced and awaiting trial. Twenty-eight have been legally determined to be incompetent to stand trial. Of these, typically, only 8 percent will be sentenced to state prison. The rest will be released back to their community of origin.

In the meantime, Brown and the supervisors will continue to debate who should be put in County Jail, for what charges, and for how long. Brown, as elected sheriff, controls the jail. The supervisors, however, control his purse strings. With the new jail, however, Brown is convinced he can provide the following: “enhanced safety and convenience for the community, better working conditions for our incredible custody staff, and more opportunities for revitalized lives, lower rates of addiction and recidivism, and a future filled with happiness, hope, sobriety, and success.”

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