New Position May Change the Way We Treat Jail Population in Santa Barbara

Combined Effort to Create a Dedicated Coordinator for Intake and Discharge Assessment at County Jails

Chief Probation Officer Tanja Heitman | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

A wave of COVID-positive cases at both the Main Jail and newly opened Northern Branch Jail, concerns over unsafe conditions, a growing jail population, and the death of Jonathan Paul Thomas in a single-occupancy cell culminated in a community-organized vigil two weeks ago pushing for a more humane system for incarceration in Santa Barbara County.

Organizers of that courthouse vigil, from the League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), have recently been part of a countywide collaborative effort between every arm of the justice system in Santa Barbara — including probation, the Sheriff’s Office, custody staff, public defenders, the District Attorney’s Office, and behavioral wellness — to create a new position dedicated to assessing individuals for “detention alternatives.” 

The details of the new position are being worked out by the Community Corrections Partnership (CCP), which includes Chief Probation Officer Tanja Heitman, public defender Tracy Macuga, Sheriff Bill Brown, District Attorney Joyce Dudley, Superior Court Executive Officer Darrel Parker, and State Assembly candidate Supervisor Gregg Hart. The CCP grew out of the effort to address overcrowding in California’s prison system in 2009. When the state passed the Public Safety Realignment Act in 2011, the CCP was tasked to create a local plan to recommend to the Board of Supervisors.

At its latest meeting on February 4, the group unanimously approved the new position as part of its ongoing budget, though a few wrinkles have yet to be ironed out. What exactly would this position do? And which branch should be in charge?

Heitman, the county’s chief probation officer, is hoping that it can be a joint effort, with a focus on providing options to individuals who would be better served with rehab or alternative programs than time behind bars.

She referred to the “three-day rule,” which is an idea in prison policy reform that just three days in pretrial detention can have detrimental effects on an individual’s employment, housing, financial stability, and family well-being. Heitman said almost all of the individuals held in Santa Barbara’s jails will be released back into the community, and discharge planning and assessment should provide an opportunity to break the cycle of recidivism.

“As a community member, I want them to come back with support systems,” Heitman said.


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One of the challenges, she said, was getting all the system partners to agree about which department would take the “lead” role. Sheriff Bill Brown is pushing for the discharge planning to stay in his jurisdiction and has not been receptive to suggestions that the jail population should remain closer to where it was earlier in the pandemic, around 550. The population is currently above 700.

“Population is much, much more complex than any one piece,” Heitman said. With the zero-bail policy of the past two years, it was possible to ensure that the population was kept as low as possible. But when these policies are lifted, it could unleash a backlog of cite-and-release cases that may drive the population even higher.

Another sticking point is the name of the position. At the latest meeting, it was listed as “discharge planning coordinator,” a technical term that rubbed some of the workgroup members the wrong way. “You don’t start discharge planning at the end; you start it at the beginning,” Heitman said.

Maureen Earls and Larry Severance are co-chairs for CLUE’s Criminal Justice Workgroup, which participates in the CCP Workgroup discussions and includes members from League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara. They have been pushing for better conditions at our county jails, more transparency, and a reduced population through alternatives to incarceration.

“How can our system be more humane?” Severance asked. 

The workgroup has met with county officials, from the Board of Supervisors to County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato, and the two praised Heitman and public defender Macuga for their “vision” with this new coordinator position.

This vision is part of a greater push across the country to rethink our relationship with the law and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the system. It is also a focus on dealing with the root causes of crime, assessing whether somebody needs mental-health resources as opposed to assessing their risk to public safety.

“You deal with a person as a human being, not a risk assessment number,” Earls said.

The CCP will meet again on April 1, when it is expected to review the position with a more focused realignment plan and decide which system partner would serve as lead. “At that point, the goal is: Let’s get a consensus,” Heitman said.

The Santa Barbara County Probation website includes details on the workgroup, along with future meeting dates and agendas.


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