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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 8:34 am | Fair 41º


Jail Assaults Jump as California’s Public Safety Realignment Takes Toll on Local Law Enforcement

Santa Barbara County reports sharp increase in attacks as inmate influx adds to overcrowded conditions

Assaults inside the Santa Barbara County Jail system have increased significantly since public safety realignment was implemented in 2011, according to Sheriff’s Department data.

Inmate-on-inmate assaults increased 40 percent from 2011 to 2013, said Cmdr. Darin Fothingham, who oversees the sheriff's Jail Operations.

The county’s jail system includes the Main Jail and Medium Security Facility at the Sheriff’s Department complex on Calle Real, and the Santa Maria Jail, which closed in July 2011 and will reopen next year.

Assaults increased 28 percent in 2012 and rose again this year, with 222 assaults by inmates on other inmates as of Nov. 30.

While the average daily population is around 1,000 people now and increased slightly since realignment — 8 percent in 2012 and 2 percent in 2013 — the increases in assaults are disproportionately high.

Santa Barbara reports on a range of assaults, Fotheringham said.

“The assaults may range from a minor offense (California Penal Code 242, simple battery), which could include a shove or spitting, all the way to a violent assault with a weapon and causing bodily injury, or even attempted murder,” he said.

“We are obviously concerned about the increase in inmate violence and are redoubling our efforts to make our jail as safe as possible despite the challenges we face,” Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said in a statement Tuesday.

Year Inmate-on-inmate assaults Average daily population
2010 146 905
2011 132 899
2012 184 981
2013 222  1,003

“The reality of providing a safe and secure facility for the inmates and custody staff is an ongoing effort that requires a significant amount of strategic planning and consideration," she said. "The classification of inmates, which is the process that determines where inmates are housed and whom they are housed with, plays a tremendous role in curbing inmate assaults."

Training custody staff to detect, prevent and respond to inmate violence is also crucial, she said.

In Santa Barbara County, inmate attacks on staff were fairly consistent from 2010 through 2012 — between 11 and 14 per year — but that number has jumped to 22 so far this year.

The county must report inmate assaults on staff to the state only if they result in a crime report, according to the Board of State and Community Corrections.

Santa Barbara County reported fewer assaults to the state than it records internally, meaning every recorded assault doesn’t result in a crime report, according to state and county data.

Year Inmate-on-staff assaults recorded Assaults reported to state board
2010 14 7
2011 14 8
2012 11 6
2013 22 8

A recent Associated Press report looked at California’s 10 counties with the largest jail populations and found increased violence in the 10 counties that hold 70 percent of the state’s jail population.

In those counties, which don’t include Santa Barbara, all but one had an increase in inmate-on-inmate assaults since realignment. Nearly 2,000 more jail inmates were assaulted by other inmates in the first year of realignment, the AP reported.

Meanwhile, assaults in state prisons have dropped as populations declined, the AP reported after analyzing state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data.

In an effort to ease overcrowding within California's prison system, Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment plan transferred more state prisoners to serve sentences in county jails and released thousands of low-level felony inmates as parolees to their home counties.

Local law enforcement expected crime rates to increase in the short term and for the criminal justice system to be swamped with the additional people, including probation, courts, social workers and re-entry programs.

“It is too early to tell the correlation between realignment and the increased level of inmate violence, but at a minimum we are seeing an increased level of criminal sophistication at our facility from inmates who would normally be sent to state prison to serve out their sentences,” Hoover said in the statement.

Sheriff Bill Brown has said realignment makes the county jail system more like a prison, with more serious inmates serving sentences longer than a year in a facility that wasn’t built for the purpose. The average stay was 20 days before realignment was implemented, but many inmates are now serving sentences longer than a year, according to a county Grand Jury report issued in June.

The jails aren’t equipped for the yard time, living space, program needs and dietary requirements for longer-serving inmates either, the report found.

It's so cramped for space that part of the jail's basement was converted into inmate housing to provide 50 more beds, Hoover said.

Brown told the county Board of Supervisors last week that the department has 13 vacant custody deputy positions right now, which means it’s so understaffed that patrol deputies are temporarily reassigned to help fill the gaps.

The board approved reopening the Santa Maria Branch Jail as a semi-temporary measure to help North County law enforcement cut down on driving time when transporting arrestees to the Main Jail.

Santa Barbara County plans to build a 376-bed jail near Santa Maria, along Black and Betteravia roads sout of the city.

The increase in violence underscores the need for a modern jail facility, Hoover said. The new jail “won’t eliminate the danger” but will be designed with new safety features that make it easier to manage inmates, she said.

It is estimated to cost $96 million to build, including an $80-million state grant and matching local funds, and is being designed to hold longer-term inmates. Operating costs will be about $17.3 million per year, starting when construction completes in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, officials say.

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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