Thursday, August 16 , 2018, 2:20 am | Fair 68º

 
 
 
 

Kathy Swift: Sheriff Brown’s Bogus Boondoggle — The Fraud and the Force

Last Christmas, the Milpas Community Association (MCA) sponsored the Eastside Christmas Parade as part of its Eastside Business Improvement District (EBID) campaign to promote and beautify this predominately Latino Santa Barbara neighborhood.

One of the notable features of the parade was an old-fashioned paddy wagon driven by Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. An effigy of the Grinch languished in the back of the wagon as the sheriff waved and smiled at the throngs of mostly Mexican parade-goers lining Milpas Street.

When you consider that the greater portion of the county’s prison population is Latino, one has little to wonder at the sheriff’s ear-to-ear grin for his future constituents at the parade.

But this little bit of Keystone Kops slapstick speaks volumes to Santa Barbara’s plutocracy, which does not disguise its social engineering efforts in the city’s Latino communities on the Eastside and the Westside. When you recall that the defeated gang injunction was a racial profiling scam promoted by the MCA and its cronies in City Hall, it is clear that these wanna-be oligarchs continue to take great interest in Mexican-owned real estate. Deceptive measures designed to produce the same results as the injunction are obviously at play in the MCA’s latest campaign to make the Eastside “clean” and “secure” under the terms of the EBID (fraud) coupled with Sheriff Brown’s relentless drive to build more jails and detention centers (force).

For this reason, it is worth taking a closer look at Sheriff Brown’s proposed North County jail.

Of all the sheriff’s many arguments for the new jail, his most egregious is his insistence that the current county jail is overcrowded. Sheriff Brown has maintained that prison “infrastructure has not kept pace with the increasing population in our county ... .” (The Sun)

But a closer look at the sheriff’s prison population in March reveals that 74 percent of them were pretrial detainees. (Noozhawk)

In fact, Santa Barbara County has one of the highest rates of pretrial detainment in California, with about three in four inmates imprisoned pretrial. They have been unconstitutionally detained for no other reason than they could not afford to post bail. That means that pretrial detainees can sit awaiting trial for months — sometimes years — even though the majority are held for petty offenses that in earlier times would have seen their release under their own recognizance. In other words, by holding so many unconvicted, low-risk defendants in county lockup, Sheriff Brown has artificially inflated his prison population with pretrial detainees in order to lend credence to his bogus arguments for another jail.

How exactly are these pretrial defendants suffering from the violation of their constitutional rights by the good sheriff’s practices? Keep in mind that the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” in prison.

Not too long ago, moderate bail for minor infractions was the norm because the idea of preventing “the infliction of punishment prior to conviction” (FindLaw.com) made good common sense. The only reason to detain anyone pretrial was if they posed an imminent threat to someone else or seemed likely to skip their court date. Such were the halcyon days of innocent until proven guilty.

But that was before the rise of the modern bail bond boom, a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry with an army of bondsmen and surety agents charging usurious interest rates to the incarcerated. Taken along with its affiliated franchises in indefinite probation, penal labor, for-profit prisons and privatized correctional services, the prison industrial complex has achieved such gargantuan proportions that the United States has the dubious distinction of incarcerating more people than any other country in the world.

Unsurprisingly, many inmates are low-income black- and brown-skinned Americans. According to the NAACP, African-Americans and Hispanics comprised 58 percent of all prisoners in 2008 even though they make up about one quarter of the U.S. population.

The bail bond industry and its affiliates can be quite profitable for county and municipal treasuries suffering from budget cuts at a time of increasing austerity. As more and more municipalities plan their budgets around anticipated revenues from minor infractions such as traffic tickets and other petty penalties, the cost to the poor rises accordingly. In 2013, the budget for the City of Santa Barbara included revenues of close to $3 million in fines and forfeitures alone.

As was demonstrated in Ferguson, Mo., such seemingly trivial fines and penalties can have a disparate impact on the working poor. After acts of police brutality in Ferguson were televised nationally, the Department of Justice conducted an investigation into the city’s systemic abuse of poverty-stricken African-Americans. What was revealed only confirmed what many already knew: that the Ferguson police selectively gave traffic tickets to poor blacks in order to accrue fines and penalties to the profit of the city.

The DOJ reported that in December 2014, more than 16,000 Ferguson residents had warrants out for their arrests for merely failing to pay these discriminatory tickets. Civil rights attorneys concluded that Ferguson had become a vast debtors prison for those with little means to pay their police-imposed tickets and steadily accruing interest and fees.

Unfortunately, Santa Barbara County is rapidly becoming like the most oppressive areas of the country. Local police have gained notoriety for engaging in the selective vehicle impoundments of low-income Latino residents. According to the Santa Barbara Independent, from June 2011 through June 2012, police issued over 1,000 unlicensed driver citations in what was rumored to be racially motivated ticketing on the Westside. As in Ferguson, post-racial America is a long way from a reality here in sunny Santa Barbara.

The fate of pretrial detainees who are incarcerated for failing to pay tickets is no laughing matter. A Hispanic man imprisoned for unpaid parking tickets died from inadequate medical care when he contracted Valley Fever in the San Joaquin County Jail. Consigned to the ugly purgatory of county jail simply because he could not afford to post bail, this man paid with his life.

And in these times of greater job precarity, almost any bail is excessively cruel for the working poor. They suffer the most in such a harsh system for upon release they may discover that they have lost their jobs, their homes and in some cases even their families. Studies show that pretrial defendants are disproportionately more likely to be sentenced to prison than inmates out on bail, with rates three times higher than the average. (Mother Jones)

This is due largely to their inability to defend themselves from behind bars and the fact that they more often take plea bargains, another court scam that targets the poor with inadequate public defense in the name of reducing caseloads. Adding insult to injury, pretrial detainees are subject to pay-to-stay prison scams that further penalize them by charging them for necessities like food, bedding, toiletries, medical and communications. In the state of Florida, private collection agencies can inflate these prison fees by as much as 40 percent, and if the detainee is unable to pay, they may find themselves imprisoned again for failing to appear for debt-related court dates.

There can be little doubt that the working poor suffer disproportionately under a system of false imprisonment that is euphemistically called pretrial detention. Though Santa Barbarans voted twice against the sheriff's prison expansion proposal, the sheriff successfully garnered state grants to go ahead with his project.

More recently, California voters passed Proposition 47 in order to decrease the numbers of prisoners by reducing non-violent offenses to misdemeanors. The hope was to reduce prison overcrowding and pass the savings on to social services like education and mental health care. Obviously there is a prison reform movement afoot that seeks to turn back the trend toward allowing prisons to become the social service providers of last resort.

Sheriff Brown should heed this hope.

— Kathy Swift is a Ph.D. student in education and co-host of Radio Occupy Santa Barbara.

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