A group of 40 Santa Barbara County defense attorneys is urging the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to put a moratorium on Northern Branch Jail spending.
Santa Barbara Defenders President Jeff Chambliss recently sent a letter to the board, which made the argument for the moratorium.
Mr. Chambliss has practiced criminal defense in Santa Barbara County for 30 years. He is a former chief trial deputy for the Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office.
County construction crews started building the Northern Branch Jail on Sept. 6, 2016, at the corner of Betteravia Road and Black Road in Santa Maria.
The 136,000 square foot, 376-bed jail was originally funded by an $80 million grant from the California Board of State and Community Corrections.
The terms of the grant require the county to open the jail and make a certain number of beds available to inmates. The county would need to return the grant money if it decided not to open the jail.
Costs estimates for the project have exceeded $100 million, and according to the county’s latest budget, the jail will cost $20.4 million per year to operate.
Mr. Chambliss argued that annual operating cost has “better uses than incarcerating more people of color and more African Americans in particular.”
“African Americans make up barely 2% of our population, but are nearly 10% of our jail population. This is unacceptable. If we double our jail population, we will see a dramatic increase in incarceration at great humanitarian and financial costs to the incarcerated individuals and their families; not to mention the continuing betrayal and erosion of the public’s trust in our justice system,” Mr. Chambliss wrote in his June 12 letter.
He noted that Santa Barbara County voters twice rejected a half cent sales tax to build the jail and argued the community is going through “a sea change” in the public will to build more jails.
“The era of building new jails and prisons (contributing to the United States being the world’s leader in incarcerating its own people, and mostly people of color) is ending,” Mr. Chambliss wrote.
“One of the strongest arguments for the new jail — the promise to spend $2 in community intervention for every dollar spent on incarceration — has fallen by the wayside.”
He continued that coronavirus-related releases have brought the County Jail population to a historic low of 540 people with no notable increase in crime.
“We couldn’t ask for better data on what incarcerating far fewer people looks like. It looks good. The sky is not falling as the result of it,” Mr. Chambliss wrote.
He expanded on the point in an interview with the News-Press on Wednesday.
“The lesson here is that public safety is not linked to incarceration. The jail population is roughly half at 45%. The question we have to ask ourselves is do we want to be spending hundreds and thousands, if not millions of tax dollars, to incarcerate our fellow citizens when there really is not a link or a very weak link between public safety and incarceration,” Mr. Chambliss said.
Board Chairman Gregg Hart agreed that the reduction in jail population has “demonstrated the potential for continuing efforts to reduce our jail population and implement alternatives to incarceration.”
“Incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color, poor people, and people with mental illness. During this time of heightened interest in promoting equity in our justice system, I will continue to work with community members, my colleagues, and our justice partners to reduce the use of incarceration in Santa Barbara County,” Mr. Hart added.
First District Supervisor Das Williams said that he supports reducing the jail population, but noted that the board does not control the court system or the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, which will operate the Northern Branch Jail.
“The reality is that our current jail is neither designed for staffing and financial efficiency nor for modern standards of humanity. Closing the North County Jail after the county has spent ungodly amounts of money on it would perpetuate worse conditions for prisoners and put the county at risk for litigation by prison reform groups. I believe the better solution is to close the current South County jail after the new jail opens, which would achieve the same goal with more humane conditions for those who must remain imprisoned,” Mr. Williams said.
The benefits of reducing the County Jail population appear to have outweighed the drawbacks so far, but similar programs in other jurisdictions produced mixed results.
In March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio blamed a short-lived “arrest and release” bail reform law for a 22.5% spike in major crime for February compared to February 2019.
The bail law took effect in January and required defendants charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies to be released without bail. The New York legislature rolled back the law in April.
On March 27, Los Angeles County set a $0 bail schedule for “most misdemeanors and low-level felonies,” according to the Los Angeles Times
The California Judicial Council implemented a statewide emergency $0 bail schedule in early April to prevent COVID-19 spread in local jails.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore blamed the emergency bail schedule for a rise in repeat arrests, although crime was down 37% overall in March compared to March 2019.
On June 10, the California Judicial Council voted to end the emergency $0 bail schedule, though individual counties can maintain the schedule.
“When the Sheriff’s Northern Branch Jail is opened, the county must continue to make progress on reducing the use of incarceration and investing in community-based services that promote community wellness, equity, and public safety,” Mr. Hart said. “This includes exploring options for reducing the operational footprint of the Main Jail in South County.”