The Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office has taken legal steps to challenge a lack of court hearings for the pre-trial release of clients held in the county jail.

The writ of habeas corpus filed with the 2nd District Court of Appeal on Monday came as the Santa Barbara County Superior Court has implemented limited operations due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Attorneys with the Public Defender’s Office contend the court’s action deprives in-custody clients of their due process rights, and violates the separation of powers doctrine. 

“In our justice system, the Superior Court is supposed to be an impartial arbiter.  Right now, it has handed over all of its discretion to release our clients to the prosecutor, a party that is biased against our clients,” said Public Defender Tracy Macuga.

“The court’s decision gives the prosecution the keys to the courthouse, and all but guarantees that hundreds of pre-trial detainees will continue to languish in unsanitary and dangerous conditions.”

Chief Trial Deputy Lea Villegas said a number of clients beyond the three named in the legal document remain in the same predicament.

At the heart of defense concern, local courts have implemented a policy that defense petitions for release in criminal cases would be heard if accompanied by a stipulation from the prosecutor.

“In delegating its judicial function to the prosecution at a time when the Superior Court’s independent judicial function is urgently needed, the court has deprived petitioners of their fundamental rights under constitutions of the state and federal government,” Deputy Public Defender Mark Saatjian wrote in the emergency motion.

On Wednesday, the appellate court asked for a response from the county District Attorney’s Office and local court representatives, setting a deadline of 4 p.m. Thursday.

Specifically, the appellate judges asked when each defendant was arraigned, how long he had been in custody, and why prosecutors oppose bail reduction or own recognizance release. 

The appellate court also asked if California’s chief justice has issued any emergency orders allow superior courts to refuse to hear motion for reduction or reconsideration of bail.

“Please be advised that the court is considering issuing a peremptory writ of mandate in the first instance directing the respondent superior court to hear and rule on ex parte requests for own recognizance release or bail reduction,” the appellate court said.

The legal action came as Sheriff Bill Brown revealed the jail’s average daily population had dropped to 685 on Monday, down from 900 in February. 

“That’s the lowest number we have seen in the Santa Barbara Jail in more than 50 years,” Brown said.

Brown said his staff has tried to keep as many people as possible out of the jail and protect those who must remain in custody.

Hundreds of inmates have been given early release, and more people are on electronic monitoring, but the devices “are about as hard to find as N95 masks are,” Brown said.

The jail population has been high for years, leading to the new North County Jail, still under construction at the intersection of Black and Betteravia roads. 

Each month in 2018, the main jail  had an average of 15-60 “floor-sleepers,” with no bed assigned, due to the lack of capacity, according to data released in response to a California Public Records Act request from Noozhawk.

About two-thirds of the in-custody population were not fully sentenced.

Sheriff’s Department records show that in 2018, on average, one-third of unsentenced jail inmates were being held on bail of less than $5,000, and 42 percent of inmates had bail amounts under $10,000.

In response to COVID-19 concerns, Brown said, deputies and other law enforcement officers have used discretion to significantly decrease physical arrests, and reduced the rate of admissions “to levels never before seen in modern history,” Brown said. 

Instead, alleged criminals in some instances have been issued citations and warnings. 

Brown said crews also were installing technology to allow for video court appearances, reducing the need to transport inmates to courthouses in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria for now. 

Villegas said defense attorneys appreciate efforts to create video arraignments and other steps taken to reduce contagion related to COVID-19.

“I think the Sheriff’s Department is taking the issue very seriously and doing what it can,” Villegas said. 

She added that a lot of work, such as plea deals in certain cases, still could be accomplished in the courts while avoiding jury trials until the health emergency eases. 

“We just want to an opportunity to be heard on it. What we want is we want access to court,” she said, adding they aren’t seeking release of all inmates held in the jail. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.