Prisoners being released in the middle of the night will have a little more comfort, according to some changes being made by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department, including the addition of new furniture to be installed in a waiting area.
But whether a taxi service that has been giving released prisoners rides into town will continue to operate is up in the air, and more work is needed to fully implement changes called for by the county's grand jury, speakers said at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting.
County supervisors voted unanimously to respond to a grand jury report issued in February that found that many inmates are freed in the middle of the night because their sentences are complete, but have fewer options for safe transportation.
The jail, located at 4434 Calle Real, is relatively isolated.
After interviewing jail staff and the jail release policies, the grand jury “concluded that inmates are not always advised of their options either verbally or in writing upon release,” the report states.
By court order, the Sheriff’s Department is required to release inmates at the end of their sentences, which often means inmates are released late at night. An average of nine inmates are released between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., the grand jury report found.
Jail policy states that if an inmate is released during hours of darkness and doesn’t have a ride from jail, the individual should be advised that he or she can remain in the jail lobby or on the outside benches until daylight hours without risk of trespassing.
However, the grand jury received information that there isn’t specific written policy on what is told to the inmate being released.
Changes are being made to advise inmates of their options, Undersheriff Don Patterson said Tuesday.
The jury also asked that the county establish a program similar to Orange County's "Lights On" program, which provides services for recently released inmates.
A local faith group, Believer's Edge, has agreed to conduct a similar program, but is still working out issues with their liability insurance, Patterson said.
Patterson said the department has also ordered new furniture for the spartan lobby, and that should arrive in the next two to three weeks. Signage will also be placed in the area, in English and Spanish, that will remind inmates they can stay in the lobby until daylight.
Talking to local judges for more flexibility about releasing the inmates also has been in the works, he said.
During public comment on the issue, the Rev. Doug Miller said he has spoken with former inmates and they feel it's a continuation of punishment to be released in the middle of the night.
"We have a very shredded safety net, and this might be one way we can mend that net," he said.
Taxi services have previously been available during late-night hours, thanks to funding from an anonymous donor, but future private funding for the taxi service most likely will not be there.
Peter Marin spoke on behalf of the Committee for Social Justice, which has run the taxi program for 3½ years.
The service costs about $1,000 a month, Marin said, and the three or four private donors have largely stopped "because they think this is a matter for the county and the cities."
Mentally-ill and physically disabled people are the majority of people who are provided ride, and "we have been picking up the slack as long as we can and we can't pick it up anymore," Marin said.
Tona Wakefield, jail discharge planner, said rides during the day also need to continue for people who are not able to take a bus by themselves.
Kath Webb, who works for a private funder who formerly funded the taxi program, said "we believe that the jail ride program has probably save some lives … but we encourage the county and cities to pick up the slack."
Supervisors expressed hope that the changes would make a better environment for the inmates, with Supervisor Steve Lavagnino saying, "I think it's going to make a big difference."
Earlier in the meeting, supervisors heard from an army of public commenters on a related topic — the county's mental health system.
Many of the mentally ill end up in jail, they said, and urged county supervisors to make treatment beds as much of a priority as is building a new jail.
The comments were spearheaded by the groups Families ACT and Santa Barbara Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.
Tuesday's impressive turn out of public comment is likely a warm-up for a larger meeting that will take place later this month looking at the county's alcohol, drug and mental health system.
On April 22, county supervisors are scheduled to get an in-depth presentation on systems changes made to ADMHS, which has undergone a series of audits in the past several years.