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Sheriff Attempts to Curb Late-Night Jail Releases
updated: Apr 05, 2014, 4:00 PM

By Alex Kacik

There isn’t a sidewalk on Calle Real, only a bike path (pictured above), and the speed limit is 45 miles per hour. (Sam Slovick)

Santa Barbara County Sheriff's deputies search nine female inmates who assume the position-legs spread, hands up against the wall of the transportation corridor in the Santa Barbara County Main Jail. The women are chained in pairs by the wrist and are wearing navy blue jumpsuits, orange socks and blue Croc sandals. This is standard procedure for the 130 or so male and female inmates who are bussed to and from North County every day. It's part of the reason Santa Barbara releases many of its inmates late at night-they either don't have enough space to hold them or inmates return from North County late in the afternoon with court orders to release them that day.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department has spent $12,000 paying its inmates to build 11 temporary holdings cells in the transportation corridor in an attempt to curb its habit of releasing inmates at the middle of the night, Santa Barbara County Undersheriff Don Patterson said. The authorities at the Main Jail have to balance an inmate's safety with their right to freedom, begging the question: How long can a county jail legally hold an inmate?

The department plans to start using the newly built cells housed in the transportation corridor next month. Then, fewer people should be left in the dark to find their own means home when their friends or family are asleep or busses have stopped running.

On top of that, the sheriff is asking local judges to allow more flexibility when it comes to mandated same- day releases.

Currently, if the court says an inmate must be released on a certain day, the jail has to let them go before midnight. The rub is transportation and staffing. Some inmates who are bussed from North County courts may arrive as late as 8 p.m. and staff must complete hours of paperwork before they are released. Sheriff Bill Brown is asking for a little more time to legally hold them until the morning. The department expects to hear back from the court in the next two months, Patterson said, but it has to toe the fine line between caring for an inmate's safety versus his/her right to be released when time's served.

"There are things that should practically be done but sometimes legal issues get in the way," Patterson told Mission and State. (Listen to inmates who are released around midnight from the Main Jail in the video below.)

The other issue is one of procedure, Patterson said. People who are arrested for alcohol-related misdemeanors are held in cells in the Intake Release Center until they can sober up. But jail staff begins preparing inmates to be bussed north around 4 a.m. and those inmates are put in the same cells. Deputies need to make room for those inmates who have court appearances, so they end up releasing the alcohol- related offenders at night, Patterson said.

"There isn't enough room," Patterson said. The jail has been overcrowded for decades and realigned prisoners have exacerbated the problem, he added. "Our average daily population is up over 100 from a couple of years ago. But when we get the new North County Jail, it won't be an issue there." (The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department is planning to build a $140 million jail in Santa Maria by mid-2017. It plans to use state grants to build the facility and the county's general fund to pay for its annual operating cost.)

While the sheriff's policy invites late-night releases to stay in the lobby until daylight "with no risk of a trespassing charge," most elect to take the five mile-plus trek to downtown Santa Barbara along a dangerous stretch of Calle Real, which is poorly lit and doesn't have a sidewalk. It's either walk home or sit in a room with a row of three plastic bus seats, although the department plans on adding new furniture to the lobby.

The Committee for Social Justice attempts to get some released inmates home safely through the Jail Ride Program, which may only survive several more months if the county or city doesn't help fund the program, says Committee for Social Justice co-founder Peter Marin.

Taxi service Rockstar Transportation provides free rides between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. and The Committee for Social Justice reimburses the company through private donations. The service currently drops indigent, homeless and mentally ill people off at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, The Salvation Army, the downtown Transit Center, 970 Embarcadero Del Mar in Isla Vista and at warming centers during bad winter weather.

There are a couple of solutions, according to attorney Robert Sanger, who filed the 1981 lawsuit Inmates of Santa Barbara Jail v. Sheriff John Carpenter that resulted in court-order population caps at the Main Jail. Open a sobering center or prepare the inmates for release before they go to their court hearing, he said. "If you know someone wants to go to a program, get them dressed up and gather all of their belongings so they can be released directly from courthouse," Sanger told Mission and State.

A recent Santa Barbara Grand Jury Report shed some light on late-night jail releases and stated that "there is no specific document which both the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office and a released inmate must sign to indicate that he/she has been offered a bus or taxi voucher, the use of a telephone, or the opportunity to wait in the lobby until dawn." It recommended that the department should require documentation.

A taxi waits outside of the Santa Barbara County Main Jail, which is located just off Calle Real. (Alex Kacik)

Excerpt provided by Mission & State. Read the full article at MissionAndState.org


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