Special meeting includes recent decrease in jail population
The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors held a special meeting on Thursday to receive reports on lowering the jail population and how to further racial equity within the county.
Both are local examples of national issues that have been thrust into the spotlight since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd.
Lowering the average daily population of the County Jail was the focus for the early part of the meeting, during which strategies for keeping mentally ill individuals away from jail and toward treatment was a frequent topic. These strategies included Stepping Up, a national program dedicated to diverting those who committed crimes as a result of mental illness away from jail, and the Criminal Justice Mapping Project, a joint effort between County criminal justice departments and Behavioral Wellness also aimed toward finding incarceration alternatives for the mentally ill and reducing the pre-trial jail population.
According to a Criminal Justice Mapping report, this effort led to the county receiving three grants to support these endeavors. These include a $3.1 million State Hospital Diversion Grant for diverting mentally ill individuals accused of felonies who are incompetent to stand trial toward treatment away from hospitals with limited beds, a $6 million CREDO47 grant for directing people accused of minor crimes into treatment or programming instead of jail, and a $2.1 million Bureau of Justice Assistant Grant for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Bill Brown remotely addressed the board about County Jail’s average daily population. During the first 15 days of July, the jail had an average daily population of 578 inmates, down from the 898 inmates it had during July 2019.
However, Sheriff Brown remarked that the jail’s average daily population is currently “artificially low” because the number of arrests is “artificially down” due to COVID-19. Officers have been instructed to take every alternative to arrest, which entails citing and releasing individuals rather than bringing them to jail.
Since March 19, 476 individuals have been released from the County Jail as a result of the county complying with the Judicial Council of California’s Emergency Order 4, which made bail $0 for a number of offenses. County courts have maintained $0 bail despite the JCC rescinding the order in June.
Of those released on $0 bail, 55, or 12%, have been re-arrested and re-booked for a total of 75 new offenses. Sheriff Brown said he’s unsure whether the jail population should be kept at its current level after the pandemic.
“It is too early to tell if lower jail numbers can or indeed should be sustained post-COVID, in my opinion. In just three months, we have seen that reoffense rate of 12% plus, and that’s not a good number,” he said, adding that he’d like to have the $0 bail policy modified for repeat offenders.
County Public Defender Tracy Macuga said the policy decreased the jail population and led to the release of individuals who committed low-level offenses. Cash bail is an “economic issue” that impacts low-income people who can’t pay bail.
“Money bail unfairly and unjustly incarcerates the poor and disadvantaged, many of whom are people of color,” she said.
“By the sheriff’s own statistics 88% of the individuals released on $0 bail have not reoffended,” she said.