Sheriff Bill Brown addresses the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.
Sheriff Bill Brown addresses the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors during budget workshops on Wednesday. The new Northern Branch Jail near Santa Maria, which is expected to open next year, was a topic of discussion. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Law enforcement departments presenting at Wednesday’s Santa Barbara County budget workshop focused on the new Northern Branch Jail, and efforts to divert people out of custody and the criminal-justice system.

The meeting’s lunch break was extended due to a bomb threat targeting the County Administration Building at 105 E. Anapamu St., according to Sheriff Bill Brown, who presented his proposed budget in the morning.

The bomb squad responded and investigated a suspicious package – a false alarm – and then evacuated the building while K-9 teams conducted a search.

Sheriff’s Department and Santa Barbara police officers blocked nearby streets during the search, and the building was cleared at 2:15 p.m.

A crowd of county staffers that gathered across the street headed back into the building to continue with the budget workshops.

Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department, said there is an investigation to find the 9-1-1 caller who made the threat.

During his presentation, Brown told the county Board of Supervisors that local violent and property crime rates are the lowest they’ve been in 10 years, “and the jail has a piece of that responsibility; you can’t just open the doors.”

The Sheriff’s Department’s proposed budget has 43 percent of funding dedicated to custody operations and 43 percent dedicated to law enforcement, and those numbers do not yet include the Northern Branch Jail operations.  

That new facility has been delayed several times, and is now estimated to finish construction in October and open in March 2020.

A Santa Barbara Police Department motor officer blocks off a portion of Anacapa Street.

A Santa Barbara Police Department motor officer blocks off a portion of Anacapa Street downtown following a bomb threat — which proved unfounded — was received at the County Building. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

The county plans to spend about $25 million over several years to renovate the Main Jail near Goleta, which Brown called “antiquated and insufficient,” but has not yet released detailed plans or costs for the work.

Budget Director Jeff Frapwell said the 2019-20 budget includes $12.7 million for the Northern Branch Jail operations fund, an account the Board of Supervisors has been contributing to since 2011. The target is contributing $19.9 million by 2022-23, the estimated annual operating cost.

The contract for medical services at the new jail hasn’t been negotiated yet, according to Frapwell, so that number could change.

It’s also unclear how much, if any, costs of operating the Main Jail will be affected by the new jail, which has 376 beds.

The Main Jail has a rated capacity of 819 beds but habitually operates over capacity. In 2018, there was an average population of 951 inmates in custody, and in February, 72 percent of inmates were not fully sentenced for every active case they have, Hoover said.

Brown said 30 deputies – school resource officers and the Isla Vista Foot Patrol – have body cameras, and he requested additional money to equip the rest of the department in the coming year.

The supervisors will make final budget decisions at a series of hearings in June, and are in the position of not having to make any service level cuts for the first time since 2007.

County departments are collaborating on diversion programs, and leaders of the Public Defender, District Attorney and Probation departments on Wednesday made it clear that there is progress being made, but still a long way to go.

Public Defender Tracy Macuga said the county’s “incarceration story” shows something is wrong, with a high percentage of people in custody waiting for trial as opposed to sentenced inmates.

It reflects decisions by legislators and law enforcement, and it is influenced by diversion programs, alternative sentencing options, a “culture of delay,” and the “fundamental unfairness of money bail,” Macuga said.

“Downsizing the jail population is no easy task, and I’m not here to suggest we should open the floodgates – but I do not think it’s an unreasonable goal,” she said.

It takes a human toll, especially on communities of color, and an economic toll, she said.

The Public Defender’s Office plans to expand its pre-arraignment unit, a collaboration with the Sheriff’s Department, and holistic defense program in the coming year, she said.

“We are moving incrementally, but I’m so proud of what we have done and feel a greater hope than I have felt in a long time,” she said.

Probation Chief Tanja Heitman said her department hopes to consolidate into one building from its two campuses, so staff for adult and juvenile services will be in the same place.

There are fewer juveniles in the department facilities – Juvenile Hall and Los Prietos Boys Camp – and the system in general, she said.

In 2019-20, the Probation Department plans to explore ending probation early or converting terms to unsupervised probation for people who don’t need the higher level after a risk analysis, she said.

District Attorney Joyce Dudley said her department received a grant to work on a felony case diversion program, but that “there is always this feeling in diversion you may be missing people who may need more jail time or significant programs, so you always want to look at cases carefully.

“If people don’t need to be in jail, we don’t want them to be in jail.”

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.