How Can Santa Barbara County Cut Jail Population in Half?

Use Ankle Bracelets and No More Jail Time for Violating Arrest Warrants and Probation

Santa Barbara County Main Jail | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

From 2011 to 2019, the county jail’s population fluctuated between 1,000 and 1,200. By the decade’s end, it was down to 1,000. During the height of the pandemic, jail population plunged to 600, fueling the hope of criminal justice reform advocates and several county supervisors that Santa Barbara could keep its incarceration levels low and save money without compromising public safety. This week, the county supervisors heard from a private consultant ​— ​Michael Wilson ​— ​that the 600 number, in fact, lay within their grasp. Wilson noted that the jail population ​— ​now at 791 ​— ​could be expected to hover between 800 and 900 for the foreseeable future if present trends and practices continue. (The jail has a permitted capacity of 1,034 beds.) 

Wilson examined 50,000 probation records and 500,000 jail booking records as well as county crime rates, booking patterns, and demographic trends. He thought they could free up 254 bed spaces by implementing these policy changes: Eliminate 70 beds by expanding the electronic ankle bracelet program; eliminate another 64 beds by reducing jail time for those violating an arrest warrant; and eliminate another 63 beds by reducing re-incarceration for those violating probation. People arrested for domestic abuse, driving while intoxicated, or crimes against children would not be eligible for any reduced time. For low-level offenders, Wilson said, sentences longer than one or two days can cause “criminogenic” side effects ​— ​like losing one’s job or housing ​— ​that lead to greater recidivism. 

Wilson’s presentation was part of a yearlong examination of the county’s criminal justice bureaucracy. Leading the effort is retired Riverside Judge Sherrill Ellsworth, who said the cheapest and most meaningful reform was to improve access by their lawyers to the accused and to expedite the discovery process. Sheriff Bill Brown cautioned that diverting inmates from the jail would wind up costing more for effective diversionary programs and that for any jail to be safely administered, there needed to be a strategic segregation of inmates otherwise at risk of violent behavior.

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