People have been pushing for criminal-justice reform ever since footage of police brutally murdering George Floyd swept the nation in mid-2020.

While some go as far as to call for defunding the police, others are pushing for more systemic changes, such as jail-diversion programs.

Diversion efforts have been one of Santa Barbara County’s main reform focuses, and many new programs, such as crisis intervention co-response teams and Goleta’s neighborhood court program, already have been implemented.

The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury studied developments in the county’s criminal-justice reform, and learned that by working together, the five agencies in the criminal-justice system — the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Probation Department and the Department of Behavioral Wellness — are “learning how to manage the transition” to greater jail diversion practices for low-level offenders.

“A multi-agency approach to diversion will more successfully reduce jail population and promote what is best for the individual, while assuring a safe community,” the report stated. “Working together as criminal justice teams creates a balance among these priorities.”

The grand jury looked at the criminal justice partners’ increased diversion methods to see what is helping keep low-level offenders out of the jail, and what can be done better.

The jury first analyzed three pre-jail diversion strategies: cite-and-release, zero bail, and jail diversion through specialized courts.

Use of Cite-and-Release for Low-Level Offenders

Rather than bring all low-level misdemeanor offenders to jail for booking, law enforcement has more often leaned on the practice of giving a warning or writing a cite-and-release ticket.

Individuals who receive cite-and-release tickets are given a date to later appear in court, according to the report.

The jury talked to a custody supervisor at the main jail, who said 60% to 65% of people given a cite-and-release ticket have made their scheduled court appearance.

“The ‘dramatic decrease in the number of arrests in the field’ has been a main contributor to the lower jail population,” the report said.

To make sure that a citation with immediate release is possible, the officer in the field needs to confirm that the individual has not been involved in more serious crimes, which requires making phone calls to determine whether warrants are out for the individual.

However, at this time, law enforcement out on patrol does not have immediate access to the “rap sheet” of the offender, the report found.

“Data needs to flow more easily, especially when an officer is in the field. In the county public safety departments, technology that integrates pertinent facts from all departments has not yet been fully activated,” the report stated.

“Criminal-justice partners have asked for a real-time external data-sharing system, along with a master name index, to help inform law enforcement’s decision-making.”

Zero Bail

The zero bail pre-jail diversion effort is applied “only to those who are not a threat to the community,” the report said.

Bail is assigned by a judge after an offender has been booked and held awaiting trial, and advocates of jail reform have called out the inequities of bail policies for years.

“Offenders who do not have enough financial resources, or do not have someone to come to their assistance, are not able to post bail. Others with greater financial means can stay out of jail pending trial,” the report said. “Unfair class and ethnic divisions were often said to be part of this practice. With zero bail, the apparent injustice was nullified.”

Zero bail is now part of the cite-and-release protocol at booking, according to the report.

Between March 18, 2020, and Oct. 5, 2021, nearly 2,600 individuals were released after booking, the report found.

Jail avoidance can also take place through specialized courts for minor offenses that are still serious enough that the arrestees are not completely diverted from being booked into jail.

In that instance, the individual goes to court but can receive treatment rather than jail time, and offenders can be released from serving time if they complete courses.

The District Attorney’s Office has had jail-avoidance courts for years, according to the report, including mental health diversion, mental health treatment, veteran’s treatment, pre-plea substance abuse, misdemeanor diversion, military diversion, dual diagnosis treatment, theft awareness and CREDO 47, the county’s stabilization center.

The county also recently approved a neighborhood court in Goleta, which will have a jury of peers and other volunteers to adjudicate settlements with low-level offenders.

The courts produce positive outcomes, but are dependent on well-informed diagnoses and upon the classes and programs developed, the jury found.

“Every individual’s case is unique, and the treatment needs to be the most suited to that person. Otherwise, specialized courts such as the drug court may not find lasting success, the jury heard,” the report said. “In general, the more classes available and the more options the individual has, the greater the chances of success.”

Pre-Custody Referrals Run Into Capacity Roadblocks

Another means of pre-jail diversion is referral to another facility, program or treatment, with the intent to keep those with mental illness or addictions out of the jail. 

The Department of Behavioral Wellness operates two alternative units: a stabilization or sobering center at the county campus, and a crisis stabilization unit.

Both centers have 12 beds and are supposed to be open 24/7 for anyone who comes in voluntarily, but the jury found that operation hours “are not consistent and placement procedures are confusing.”

“Behavioral Wellness staffing shortages and the public’s lack of awareness about the centers have meant that they are underutilized and can even be closed when someone arrives,” the report found. “Because of these uncertain arrangements, law enforcement must determine if the stabilization centers are available and appropriate for those exhibiting trauma with drugs or mental breakdown, or decide to take them to the jail, where they are watched and kept off the streets.

“For now, in many cases, it is often more convenient to take people to the jail.”

People whose symptoms are more acute and need more critical care can be taken to the 16-bed Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF), which is a lockdown facility run by the Department of Behavioral Wellness.

However, when the PHF is full, the jail is the only other place these severe cases can go, the report found.

The jury learned that a county should have 40 to 80 mental crisis beds based on its population size — meaning the county needs at least three times the current number of beds it has.

“To be able to divert individuals to places with treatment or mental health programs, there needs to be more secure facilities in the County, such as another 16-bed PHF unit,” the report stated. “The Santa Barbara County Sheriff has publicly referred to the Main Jail as ‘the de facto mental institution for the County.’”

The jury also noted that most of the alternative facilities are in South County, so any trip to those centers takes a North County officer off the streets for at least three hours while they drive there.

Additionally, Santa Barbara County is the only county in the state where law enforcement officers do not have the ability to place someone on a 5150 Welfare and Institutions Code hold; the Department of Behavioral Wellness holds that power and would need to send a clinician to the scene in order to declare a hold, which has frustrated law enforcement officials, according to the report.

Using Co-Response Teams to Handle Crisis Calls

Another diversion method that the county has implemented is co-response teams, which pair a law enforcement officer trained in crisis intervention with a mental health clinician to handle crisis calls.

The county’s co-response teams were created in 2018, and by June 2021, the teams responded to 1,600 of the 2,602 mental health calls, according to the report. Only 15 of those people were taken to jail.

While the co-response teams have proved beneficial, the process of staffing the teams has been slow because of difficulty in providing Behavioral Wellness clinicians and staffing shortages in law enforcement, according to the report.

The county also only has three daytime teams — one in North County and two in South County — so the jury was told that the presence of those teams is not 100% reliable, according to the report.

The Santa Barbara Police Department has its own co-response team, and the Board of Supervisors just approved a team for the Santa Maria Police Department.

Ideally, the county would have eight co-response teams so that another could respond if the first team were already on a call, the report found.

As part of diversion while in jail, the county offers programs and classes that inmates can participate in for early release and reduced jail time.

Criminal Justice Departments Need to Share Information Better, Grand Jury Finds

The jury determined that there is a need for shared data among criminal justice partners in order to successfully implement these diversion strategies.

“Criminal justice partners confer or collaborate at more than one point from diversion to release strategies,” the report said. “The goal is that each partner would be informed of all the facts concerning the inmate when considering eligibility for release. The data needs to be accessible within each law enforcement agency and among all criminal justice partners.”

The Probation Department currently has a data dashboard that includes items such as crime type, length of stay in jail, supervision type and risk level, among others. The District Attorney’s Office also has a data dashboard on its website. The Sheriff’s Office is in the process of adding its information, and the Public Defender’s Office is expected to add theirs soon.

The jury was told, however, that law enforcement does not have a way to pull out data from the current computer system in a meaningful or efficient way beyond the dashboard. 

The Board of Supervisors set aside $1.5 million for data analysis and technology tools among the criminal justice partners to help with the data issue, but not all funding requests have been granted, according to the report.

The report found that there are several barriers to resolving issues such as inadequate technological support and lack of resources in and out of jail, and that the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors plays a key role in assisting the “operational evolution” of the criminal justice system.

The jury also found that a discharge planner, who would gather information from the various agencies and plot a course of action for inmates upon release, is a position that is needed.

Despite all of the county’s efforts to increase diversion, the jury concluded that more work is needed to accomplish the desired outcomes. The criminal justice partners need to collaborate further and would benefit from technological and budgetary support from the Board of Supervisors, according to the report.

“The dual nature of diversion — maintaining public safety and improving personal reform — relies upon interagency coordination and continued evaluation,” the report stated. “Collaboration among the criminal justice partners is vital for the success of jail diversion. … Consensus is developing.”

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.