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County to Study Ways to Reduce Jail Overcrowding

With Santa Barbara County needing to lower its recidivism rate in order to reduce overcrowding at the County Jail, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved an assessment study of the issue.

County Executive Officer Chandra Wallar said law enforcement and incarceration costs are escalating almost exponentially, which isn’t sustainable.

The County Jail has been overcrowded for 20 years, and authorities have been releasing people early — an average of 1,370 per year over the last five years — to deal with the court-mandated cap on capacity.

Recidivism rates are high, with about 70 percent of people reoffending and going back to jail or prison once they get out.

The 2008 Blue Ribbon Commission on Overcrowding suggested that the county build a new jail and pursue recidivism-reduction programs. A North County Jail project is under way with a state grant and matching county funds, but Wallar said the extra beds aren’t enough to stop the overcrowding problem.

The county is already working on a Results First Initiative, which assesses the costs and benefits of intervention options, to identify the most effective programs.

Wallar presented another potential initiative on Tuesday helped by Rick Roney, who works on recidivism-reduction issues with the county and served on the 2008 Blue Ribbon Commission.

The county has worked hard on re-entry programs for state parolees, but needs the same level of effort for county-level offenders, Roney said.

The Pay for Success program is a new idea in which the county would pay only for a program if it hits a certain level of effectiveness. The county would agree to pay an intermediary if the program works, and that intermediary would find community investors and providers for that program, Roney said.

If the interventions work, the investors recoup their money, and if not, the county doesn’t have to pay.

County supervisors decided they want more information and input from the Debt Advisory Committee before pursuing the Pay for Success model, but the board did support the assessment study on intervention options.

“I’m trying to avoid having a lot of staff time devoted to this before it’s been vetted,” Supervisor Janet Wolf said.

Supervisor Steve Lavagnino praised county officials for coming up with something that’s “definitely way outside the box,” but asked why a larger jail wouldn’t fix the problem.

“We can’t build it big enough,” Roney said. “We’ve done a massive social experiment in the U.S., and tested whether sending a person to prison changes their behavior, and it doesn’t. It may change it in a negative way.”

The only solution is to change behavior, which requires prevention and intervention programs, he said.

Sheriff Bill Brown spoke briefly at the meeting, and said the new jail will have limited enhancements in programming and treatment, and his department is trying to get grant funding to add housing to the existing County Jail.

The jail has a substance-abuse treatment program and discharge planner, and is working to get social services embedded in the jail to work with inmates about to be released.

Plans for a new jail are moving forward with $80 million in state grants and $16 million in matching county money. The county will also have to come up with about $17 million in annual operating costs starting in 2018, and the supervisors still haven’t decided where that money will come from.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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