Santa Barbara County Uncuffed from Complete Jail Renovation

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Santa Barbara County Jail (courtesy photo)
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This story was originally published by the Santa Barbara Independent and is reproduced here in partnership with Edhat.


By Tyler Hayden of The Independent

It was early July, and Supervisor Das Williams was sitting in his office and going through his mail. As he read a letter from a state criminal justice agency, he let out a big “Woohoo!” “I think I startled some of my staff,” he remembered.

The Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) had informed county leaders that, despite repeated statements to the contrary from their sheriff and staff, Santa Barbara was not legally obligated to renovate and add rated beds to its Main Jail as a condition of receiving $80 million in state funding to construct the new North County Jail. 

The renovation work was expected to cost tens of millions of dollars, county money Williams has always said would be better spent on alternatives to incarceration. Parts of the aging campus do need to be overhauled, he conceded, but not the entire 819-bed facility, especially with the 376-bed northern branch scheduled to come online this spring. Since the pandemic, Williams noted, Santa Barbara dropped its average jail population from more than 900 to under 600 without being overrun by crime.

“This letter,” Williams said this week, “represents an enormous opportunity to look at what wings it makes sense to upgrade, and what wings to close permanently, to save us an enormous amount of taxpayer dollars that could otherwise go not only to diversion and rehabilitation programs but also to basic public safety services like investigations and patrols.”

It was as recently as a June 1 budget hearing that Sheriff Bill Brown told the supervisors Santa Barbara had “promised” the BSCC it would add more jail beds to satisfy the requirements of the state grant. At the same hearing, County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni, said he “absolutely agreed” with the sheriff’s interpretation of the rules. The supervisors then proceeded with their deliberations with that same understanding.

But in direct contradiction to both Brown and Ghizzoni, the BSCC letter said there are no ― and were no ― “statutory or programmatic requirements that counties increase local capacity” in order to receive funding. “I don’t think he was acting dishonestly,” said Williams, who frequently butts heads with Brown on matters of public safety financing, “but he perpetuated a bad fact that got us bottlenecked into the wrong choices.”

For his part, Brown told the Independent the BSCC altered the grant conditions between when the county received the $80 million in 2012 and today. “That was then, and this is now,” he said. “They have new staff and new administration. Things change.” The letter makes no mention of a policy change, however, and explains adding beds was never “a binding promise.”

Brown insisted throughout the budget negotiations, during which his department’s annual allocation was increased by approximately $7 million, that Santa Barbara County needs at least 1,000 jail beds to maintain an acceptable level of public safety. Those beds shouldn’t always be filled, he explained, but it’s important to maintain the extra space in the event of arrest “surges” or other unexpected influxes. Jails, like hospitals, have an ideal operating capacity, he said, and the industry standards for lockups is 85 percent.

In recent years, Brown has championed the jail’s anti-recidivism programs with notable success. He’s also supported alternative means of helping those in the throes of drug addiction or mental health crises. “Nobody wants more than I do to have alternatives to jail for mentally ill and drug addicted people,” he said. “But you also need jail space for those people when they commit serious crimes.… You can have a carrot, but you also need jail as the stick.”

Among those most opposed to the renovation has been Jeff Chambliss, a private defense attorney and president of the Santa Barbara Defenders association. To build a new jail at a total ― and way over budget ― cost of $120 million, on top of spending millions more to upgrade the existing one, would not only run counter to evolving philosophies of criminal justice but also go squarely against local public opinion, he argued. In 2000 and 2010, Chambliss noted, Santa Barbara County voters were asked to increase the sales tax to pay for the new northern branch. In both cases, they soundly rejected the idea.

The BSCC discrepancy wasn’t the first time the Sheriff’s Office cited incorrect information to justify an overhaul of the main campus, Chambliss claimed. Last year, he said, the department attempted to use a legal settlement with Disability Rights California over ADA compliance at the facility to move the project forward. It was only when Chambliss and his group intervened, explaining to the supervisors in private meetings that the settlement did not, in fact, mandate a renovation, that the proposal was tabled. “They were pleasantly surprised,” he said. “They’d gotten another bad fact.”

“I think the board is not getting good information from their staff, and the sheriff is looking for justifications to fund this renovation without putting it to a public vote,” continued Chambliss, suggesting a ballot measure is the only responsible way to determine if jail additions and improvements are how county residents truly want to spend their money. “I think there are a lot of people out there who would be against this,” he predicted, “or at least want more transparency in the process.”

The supervisors are expected to revisit the issue later this summer. 

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Luvaduck Jul 30, 2021 01:03 PM
Santa Barbara County Uncuffed from Complete Jail Renovation

Part of the problem with crime in this area is the easy access offered to communities by 101 north and south. It led to organized rings preying on our more relaxed security. Most homeowners don't have all windows barred and multiple locks on solid doors on the first floor, loaded guns and large guard dogs. Contrast that with L.A. and areas to the north of us.

Zenyatta19 Jul 30, 2021 02:01 AM
Santa Barbara County Uncuffed from Complete Jail Renovation

I suggest those who are stating crime has not gone up to read the year end report from the sheriff’s office. Then when you’re done spend a Friday or Saturday night listening to the scanner feed for SB County, Sheriff, Fire etc…

a-1627666754 Jul 30, 2021 10:39 AM
Santa Barbara County Uncuffed from Complete Jail Renovation

One year of increase (especially given the crazy year we've had) does not negate decades of downward trend. You are picking out a single point of data instead of looking at the bigger picture - that's your prerogative, but that data point alone is statistically insignificant. The decades of data showing drop in crime rates is a better reflection of reality.

RHS Jul 29, 2021 07:20 PM
Santa Barbara County Uncuffed from Complete Jail Renovation

All Sheriff's seem absolutely driven by the need to expand their 'empire.' There was no need for a north county massive jail. The attempt to co=opt the system by claiming that a mental health operation could function as well in the jail as outside the jail was a lie agreed to by law and order politicians and the Sheriff. Not only is such a system not efficient as it takes in 'patients' willy nilly and lets them out willy nilly (dependent on their sentencing) so no real plan can be agreed to or followed up on but it is substantially more expensive than an outpatient or even a locked care mental health facility would be. We are always at the mercy of those who scare us with claims that "apres moi le deluge."

lovesbalot Jul 29, 2021 05:31 PM
Santa Barbara County Uncuffed from Complete Jail Renovation

IMG_3295.jpg I agree with Chambliss. 120 million is a lot to spend on incarceration. This should go to the voters. I agree with Das Williams that this money needs to go to programs that help people stay out of jail. I would like to see more funding going to the County, not the school district for literacy. Over 70% of inmates are not functionally illiterate. As a community if we offered free , early interventions we would help stop the school to prison pipeline. So many of our most vulnerable students are pushed out of school with punitive truancy policies. And many of our most vulnerable students are not getting the A-G courses that make them eligible for a 4 year UC Univiersity experience. Only 2% of the english language learners and only 6% of the students with learning differences. Add to these grim scores that many of the students grow up in poverty. We have the 2nd highest county poverty rate in California. Rather than build more jails and incarcerate more youth lets get proactive and spend monies on the front end to be sure that they have solid skills and are literate. Literacy is the only way to get out of poverty. I think this is a much more ethical and sensible approach than what Brown is offering... more beds for more incarceration. This solves nothing but just grows the machine.

PitMix Jul 29, 2021 12:40 PM
Santa Barbara County Uncuffed from Complete Jail Renovation

"Since the pandemic, Williams noted, Santa Barbara dropped its average jail population from more than 900 to under 600 without being overrun by crime."
Edhat has many stories of felons being arrested and released. I guess it won't matter until one of the Supes is a crime victim?

a-1627635174 Jul 30, 2021 01:52 AM
Santa Barbara County Uncuffed from Complete Jail Renovation

Crime in the county has not decreased as a whole. Funny you tell someone to share their data yet you do not. Here is last year’s report: The sheriff's office said Part 1 violent crime was up by 7% overall in 2020, with the most significant jumps being a 71% increase in rape and 32% increase in robbery. Part 1 property crime was 20% higher than the previous year; this included a 73% increase in motor vehicle theft, 27% increase in theft and 138% increase in arson.

a-1627598396 Jul 29, 2021 03:39 PM
Santa Barbara County Uncuffed from Complete Jail Renovation

That's cut and dry media bias, PITMIX. You only *think* more crime is happening because you see it on edhat etc., in reality crime rates of most kinds, especially violent crime, have been steadily falling since the 80s.

dukemunson Jul 29, 2021 01:40 PM
Santa Barbara County Uncuffed from Complete Jail Renovation

Technically Das is right… we haven’t been “overrun” by crime. It’s massively up of course by any/all metrics… but no, we haven’t been “over run”. Echoes of our fine Mayors classic about us not doing “as bad as LA”. It’s all about setting the bar low enough I guess….

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