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Supervisors Say No to Sheriff’s Treatment and Re-Entry Complex in North County Jail Project

Board supports existing plans for jail construction project, which includes 378 beds for inmates

Supervisors moved forward with plans to build a new North County jail but aren’t supporting the adjacent treatment facility with an additional 288 beds.
Supervisors moved forward with plans to build a new North County jail but aren’t supporting the adjacent treatment facility with an additional 288 beds.  (Santa Barbara County photo)

In a surprising turn, Santa Barbara County Supervisors voted Tuesday to move ahead with plans for the new jail planned for northern Santa Barbara County, but not the adjacent treatment and re-entry complex. 

The vote was 3-2, with Supervisors Steve Lavagnino and Doreen Farr dissenting. Lavagnino supported both facilities going forward and Farr said she did not support either.

The Board of Supervisors heard from consultants hired to assess the cost estimates for the new jail and the Sheriff’s Treatment and Re-Entry complex, which would be a separate facility housing minimum-security inmates and people with mental health issues. 

The facility would also host programs to help inmates re-enter society after time served.

The STAR facility would have added $1.8 million in operating costs for the first two years and $2 million each year after that. That increase is based on the increased staffing that a recent consultant report recommended for the facility.

“Right now it’s not the time” for the STAR complex, said Supervisor Janet Wolf, balking at the operating cost of the facility. “Two million dollars is not chump change.”

Wolf said that when the item had come before supervisors in May, she had been uncomfortable with moving forward with the STAR complex and the consultant's findings validated her concerns.

“I don’t believe that our facilities are antiquated but sometimes I feel like our policies are,” she said, and that programming in the community, not in jail, has the best chance for success.

The Sheriff’s Department proposes closing the former honor farm, the Medium Security Facility, at the South County Main Jail after the new facility opens near Santa Maria. Click to view larger
The Sheriff’s Department proposes closing the former honor farm, the Medium Security Facility, at the South County Main Jail after the new facility opens near Santa Maria.  (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

The consultants, Carter Goble Associates LLC from South Carolina, found that the facilities would need 12 more staff and about $2 million more in funding as a result.

The jail facility, scheduled to open in July 2018, will have a capacity of 376 beds and house inmates of all custody levels.

A July 2019 opening was planned for the STAR complex, which would have 228 beds.

Average daily population at the jail dipped at the beginning of this year, but numbers have gone back up for the jail's average daily population, Undersheriff Barney Melekian said.

The current population is 957 in custody, with 80 percent being held on felony charges and 75 percent are pre-trial, he added.

Some of the older portions of the main County Jail in Santa Barbara would be closed under the plan, but none of the alternatives discussed closing that South County jail altogether, which raised concern among some supervisors.

That’s because about $15.6 million in deferred maintenance work must be completed at the current jail facilities, according to another consulting group, Denver-based Marx Okubo, which was hired to look at those expenses.

Closing the jail’s medium-security facility, known as the Honor Farm, would avoid $1.5 million in costs.

During Tuesday’s presentation, Carter Goble Associates officials showed that 1,134 beds would be needed in 2025, and average daily population is expected to increase 2.4 percent during that time.

Consultants also said that the jail “has served its purpose” and needs serious attention.

Plans for the North County jail complex so far have included the main jail and a treatment and re-entry facility, as shown here. Click to view larger
Plans for the North County jail complex so far have included the main jail and a treatment and re-entry facility, as shown here.  (Santa Barbara County photo)

Closing the main jail is “exactly where we need to go,” Lavagnino said.

“Trying to milk another 20 years out of it is really throwing money at a problem.”

About nine public speakers took to the podium, including Rick Roney, longtime advocate for the new jail, who encouraged the county not to turn down money from the state.

“That building isn’t going to last so why we would we turn down money to build in the North County,” he said.

Roney said the STAR complex is one of the most important parts of the project and would help rehabilitate people before their release.

“This is not the time to have second thoughts,” he said.

Advocate Debbie McCoy had a different viewpoint of the STAR facility.

McCoy spoke for Families ACT! and said her daughter had been in a solitary confinement cell in the jail only to be told months later by a judge she was incompetent to stand trial.

“I don’t see how we can treat the mentally ill and incarcerate them at the same time,” she said, adding that diversion hasn’t been discussed.

“They are not made better, they are made worse… And it’s often a recovery that you pay for,” she told board members.

Sheriff Bill Brown also spoke at length, and said that the closure of the jail’s medium-security facility, formerly the honor farm, can only happen if both the main jail and the STAR facility move forward.

Brown said that Carter Goble Associates consultants validated his department’s estimates. 

The treatment portion of the jail is necessary for people with mental illness as well as addiction, he said, adding that abandoning the STAR complex would bring its own costs.

Brown said advocacy group Disability Rights California is officially authorized to inspect the jail, which it has done in the past.

“They did not like what they saw,” Brown said, advocating that the county replace the jail system with ADA-compliant facilities rather than face potentially steep legal fines.

“For those who think that we cannot afford this, I say we cannot afford not to,” he said, adding that the state is ready to pay 90 percent of the construction costs. 

“This promises to be the best investment in public safety that you could ever make.”

Supervisor Salud Carbajal said he would rather invest in mental-health facilities in the community than in jail and the STAR facility would send the wrong message.

“We need a jail replacement or enhancement… Moving forward with the STAR facility would undermine our ability to take an alternative approach,” he said.

Lavagnino said that when he arrived on the board, he was shocked at how past boards had not saved for the jail.

Mental-health funding has increased since he joined the board, he said, and “I haven’t seen much improvement at all.”

Though he supported both the main jail and the STAR complex,“I guess I’m going to lose this one,” he said.

After the vote, Sheriff Bill Brown issued a statement Wednesday.

"The Board’s decision to abandon the SB1022 STAR wing of the Northern Branch Jail Project, and its accompanying $38.9 million award from the State of California, is deeply disappointing," Brown said.

"As a county, we have taken a giant step backwards in terms of public safety and community corrections.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper 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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