A view of the entrance to Santa Barbara's South County Jail. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

The League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara (LWV-SB) and CLUE (Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice) (CLUE-SB) have jointly studied our county criminal justice system in depth over a period of years. We are part of that study group that has met with Sheriff Brown, our District Attorney, Public Defender, and Probation Chief, our County CEO, and those county supervisors willing to meet with us. We study and weigh in on budget issues. However, the views expressed here are our own personal views.

We have researched and identified reforms that work to reduce recidivism (returns to jail) and have shared this research with Sheriff Brown, as well as research that specifically addresses how to improve working conditions for custodial staff. These models are being adopted in Oregon, some of California’s state prisons, and elsewhere. It’s time to put them to work here.

Santa Barbara County and Sheriff’s Office can improve public safety for everyone in our community by moving from “guard-inmate” models of incarceration (with an average 70 percent recidivism rate nationally) to remodeled jail space that allows for direct supervision, improves living conditions for jail residents and working conditions for custodial staff, and results in fewer returns to jail by those re-entering our communities. New hires could be recruited to help “Build good neighbors,” the stated goal that reduced recidivism by 50 percent in the prison where it was first adopted. These are goals Sheriff Brown and all our criminal justice leaders can and should support. Innovative action to reduce the beds of the current South County jail are pivotal to achieve the transformation we need.

Sheriff Bill Brown is a well-intentioned but deeply entrenched leader who seems unwilling to update his vision of what is needed to run his department effectively. Local media recently reported his department will spend $17 million on overtime for the current fiscal year — the highest ever in Sheriff Brown’s long record of annual overspending. He attributes the current over-spending and poor success with recruitment to “a false narrative in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy that law enforcement is brutal and racist,” a message he calls reckless. This view fails to acknowledge authentic broad-based calls for transformational reform to a broken criminal justice system.

Sheriff Brown says new recruits need to be in “guardian mode.” This is not an enlightened way to frame the important work our deputies do and now must adapt to do differently. As a recruitment slogan, it is failing. Our county’s Deputy Sheriff’s Association has documented chronic burnout resulting from requirements that jail deputies work three to four overtime shifts per week. These working conditions are unlikely to attract new recruits, yet Sheriff Brown won’t try a county-hired consultant’s guidance about how to reduce hours worked by 10 percent without any reduction in service provided. Similarly, he “balks” at our county-hired jail population expert’s findings and recommendations to safely reduce our long-term jail needs by 200 beds.

It is undisputed that our county needs reform. The Sheriff and county are currently under a federal court mandate to remodel the South County jail to eliminate inhumane conditions. This is the result of a Stipulated Judgment agreed to by all parties in the Murray case. There is also no dispute that violent, dangerous people need to be removed from our community for public safety reasons. However, our jails hold many people who do not pose a threat to the community and who are simply awaiting trial or disposition of their case. Roughly 80 percent of jail residents have not been sentenced. This does not make us safer. Instead, jail traumatizes those unnecessarily left there, destabilizes families, causes job losses, and stigmatizes people who by law are presumed innocent.

Sheriff Brown’s current budget totals $181.9 million and constitutes 59 percent of Santa Barbara County’s total spending for criminal justice. He is protective of his budget and always seeks more. But how is it spent? His department, and criminal justice in Santa Barbara County, cling to a misplaced emphasis on jailing people: More Sheriff’s staff are currently employed in our county jails (338.6 full-time equivalents) than in community-based services (318.28 FTE’s).

Each jail bed costs $81,761 or more per year to operate (KPMG 2020 Performance Review). A long-term reduction in the size of our county’s daily jail population by 200, as the county’s expert points the way, can save millions each year that could support community-based alternatives and much needed housing to stabilize those returning to our community from jail. Over 30 percent of those in our jails struggle with mental health challenges. Many of these can be better served in the community than in our jails. Those with addictions are also better off being treated rather than jailed.

In prior years, our county supervisors have acquiesced to this backward approach to public safety. But we need new vision now. We hope for transformational vision and action from Sheriff Brown and that he will apply his Department’s stated values of “service, integrity, caring, courage and fairness” to adopt evidence-based ways to improve public safety, and his custodial staff and jail residents’ well-being. For now, our County Board of Supervisors must lead change through critical budget decisions that halt runaway annual cost increases associated with incarceration.

CLUE-SB and the League of Women Voters-SB are currently circulating a petition calling on our county supervisors for leadership, action and collaboration with criminal justice leaders to accomplish these goals:

1. Safely reduce the number of people in jail. Implement the June 2022, County Jail Population Expert’s report. Reduce our total long-term jail population by 200 by removing barriers to electronic monitoring, reducing jail time for warrants, and speeding transfers to state prison.

2. Increase needed community services – Help, not handcuffs. Expand and fund community-based treatment programs and mental health beds. Stop housing people in jail with primary health needs that do not require a jail cell. Repurpose existing facilities as needed.

3. Continue and expand Co-response Teams (mental health worker + law officer or firefighter). These teams respond to calls in which mental health crises rather thancriminal conduct are likely present. Co-response teams have proven to significantlyreduce arrests resulting from 911 calls.

4. Provide Fair and Early Representation for all. Fund the Public Defender’s request to provide a team (lawyer, social worker and investigator) who can meet with clients days (not minutes) before their first court appearance. This will streamline justice in our courts. Research shows even a day or two of prep time can substantially reduce incarceration.

5. Provide equal and fair access to evidence. Make funding decisions that enable the Public Defender to receive all the evidence (discovery) that the Sheriff provides to the District Attorney. Other counties have this policy. Our current policy disadvantages those who are accused but must wait to learn the basis of the charge(s) against them.

Laurence Severance, PhD, JD is co-chair of the CLUE Criminal Justice Workgroup, and Pam Flynt Tambo is chair of the League of Women Voters, Santa Barbara, Social Policy Committee.


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