Supervisors to Review Alternative Incarceration Options Following Racial Inequity Hearing
Wendy Sims-Moten speaking during Thursday's Board of Supervisors meeting
By Lauren Bray, edhat staff
The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors held a hearing on racial equity and the county's criminal justice system on Wednesday due to protests and discussions supported by local residents.
Ahead of the meeting, Supervisors Gregg Hart and Das Williams authored a resolution recognizing Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day which honors the Emancipation Proclamation, and committed funds to the celebration this year, as well as allocated $500,000 to fund initiatives to create equity in our criminal justice system. The resolution will be presented during the Board of Supervisors meeting on June 16.
The Board asked for community leaders Wendy Sims-Moten, Executive Director of First 5 and a Santa Barbara Unified School District Board Member, and Aaron Jones, Director of the Educational Opportunity Program and PhD student at UC Santa Barbara, to lead the discussion.
Sheriff Bill Brown, District Attorney Joyce Dudley, Courts-appointed Chief Probation Officer Tanja Heitman, and Public Defender Tracy Macuga were also requested to be in attendance.
"Oftentimes people of color, we have a dual citizenship in a place where we're born because we have to figure out how to work in a world that has different rules," said Sims-Moten in an opening statement. "As part of our step today we really have to be able to listen to people's experience, get out of our own way, get out of our own head, our pre-talking points that we thought we needed to have before we got here, they should be [different] after we hear," said Sims-Moten.
"This is nothing new. So what are we going to do and how are we going to make it more than just lip service because this is the crisis of the moment?" asked Jones.
"As much as I respect the members of the board I have to say I have to push back on the previous statements about these unconscious attempts to not have the black community or communities of color here. I actually will challenge that. I think the attempts... have been very conscious, have been very intentional," he said.
With nearly five hours of public comment that included over ninety combined phone calls and letters entered into the record, community members asked for transparency, accountability, and structural change within the Sheriff and District Attorney offices. The majority of the statements included reducing jail admissions and redirecting to social services, incorporate de-escalation in use of force practices, and redirect law enforcement funding into community programs.
Halfway through public comments, Supervisor Peter Adam announces he has to leave early and gives a statement where he denounces racism, white supremacy, and "evil."
"I will not call for defunding the police. I will not denounce our country. While some want to paint our country as racist, I reject that premise. This country has done more than any other, including the Civil War that cost 620,000 lives to end slavery and is a worldwide leader in the fight for personal freedom and civil rights all over the world," said Adam.
He also denounced police brutality and stated he's never seen any behavior of the sort committed by the local sheriff's department while ending his comment by expressing his strong affection for capitalism.
Jones interjected during the long meeting to address some of the outlier comments provided by Adam and a handful of community callers.
"Structurally, institutionally, historically, foundationally, something is wrong. We all know it. Well, let me say that differently, many, if not most know it. Maybe some refuse to see it, maybe its too hard to see but that doesn't change the fact that it exists," he said.
During public comment, Krystle Farmer-Sieghart, one of the leaders of Healing Justice; Black Lives Matter Santa Babara (BLM), criticized Sheriff Bill Brown for his response to their recent BLM demands which called for more transparency and accountability of his office. She stated his response was tone-deaf, ignorant, racist, and egotistical.
"The SB County Sheriff's Department is not above police brutality. They do not get to absolve themselves from racial profiling, inhumane actions, or in Sheriff Bill Brown's case, accountability, for being completely ignorant and highly misinformed. It happens rights here in our community and I'm sure there are countless stories and experiences that we haven't heard of," she said.
Following public comment, Sheriff Brown took no time in defending himself and the actions of his department. He stated their use of force policy does include de-escalation that goes above the standard recommendation and has been in use for that past 10 years.
He also stated their offices has been a leader in reducing jail admissions by redirecting people to mental health and substance abuse services. They have collaborated with the county's Behavioral Wellness Department that has three teams of deputies and mental health experts trained to operate together and respond to crises. In April of this year, there were 186 contacts with these teams and only two resulted in arrest, he said.
In a lengthy glowing summary of his department, Brown noted that what happened to George Floyd was inexcusable but should not "discredit or define the hard work" of his deputies.
"The solution to this national problem is not to gut the good work that is being done locally by defunding the police or the Sheriff's Office. I have no doubt that change is coming, but that change needs to be reasonable with the input of others taken into account," said Brown.
District Attorney Dudley responded in a similar defensive position, directing the majority of her comments to one community member who criticized her recently published editorial. Dudley re-read her statements to clarify misquoting errors. She also addressed a comment regarding marijuana convictions and stated she has 1,500 cases of convicted charges they plan to reduce or dismiss that have been paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I want to assure you that your District Attorneys office does offer alternatives to jail incarceration as well as multiple diversion programs, but more importantly we will expand those as much as we possibly can without negatively affecting public safety," she said.
Public Defender Tracy Macuga stood out among the local officials for her calm and compassionate response to the concerns of the community.
"This moment, after listening, and decisions you make going forward are very important. Mass incarceration and systemic and institutional racism didn't happen in a vacuum, but years of policy and investment decisions that support and empower racism in the criminal justice system," said Macuga.
She stated that public defenders are constantly advocating for meaningful diversion opportunities and the District Attorney has the power to do so.
Supervisors Hart, Williams, Hartmann, and Lavagnino expressed their support and willingness to listen and learn. Williams made sure to reiterate the systemic issues within the justice system that need to be addressed.
"Our local law enforcement may be progressive but that doesn't mean we can't have embedded biases in the institution. [There are] opportunities to evolve, we cant go back to incarcerating that many people," he said.
At the conclusion of the meeting the board unanimously, minus Adam who left early, passed a motion for county staff to come back with a report from justice partners on what work is being done to keep incarceration numbers down and what can continue to be done.
The final word of the meeting was left to Jones and Sims-Motem who both said, "Black lives matter."