More jail beds are being freed up locally, thanks to a new law that reduces some low-level felony crimes to misdemeanors, so why is Santa Barbara County still planning to build a new North County Jail?
That was the core question considered Wednesday night during a public forum focused on the future of incarceration in the county and on impacts from Proposition 47, an initiative Californians voted into law last November.
Prop. 47, also called the Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act, aims to reduce incarceration rates by reclassifying nonviolent drug, theft and other low-level felonies as misdemeanor crimes.
Speakers at Trinity Episcopal Church on Wednesday said voters prioritized lessening the law-enforcement workload to redirect those funds to mental-health and substance-abuse treatment programs, not building new places to lock them up.
Hosts of the forum — The Fund for Santa Barbara and CAUSE — used Prop. 47 to launch a discussion on whether the community needed a new North County Jail, which could break ground in Santa Maria later this year.
Organizers said they saw a glimmer of hope this week when the county Board of Supervisors expressed reservations about moving forward with the jail without a clear plan to fund the escalating $18 million in annual operating costs.
Prop. 47 also speaks to their case, they said, by freeing up beds and showing that Californians want to help the mentally ill and substance abusers outside jail walls.
“It’s insane that it hasn’t led to a complete re-evaluation of the new jail plan,” said Jess Farris, a policy and advocacy counsel at the ACLU of Southern California. “We need to keep the pressure on our elected officials to think outside the revolving door. This is a nationwide problem.”
The United States makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it accounts for 25 percent of its incarcerated people, Farris said, noting that California has the most inmates nationwide.
She urged incarceration alternatives and highlighted an important part of Prop. 47: Starting in August 2016, the funds saved from less law enforcement would go toward programs to help fund those alternatives.
Also impacting the need for a new jail would be AB 1468, Farris said, explaining that the split-sentencing law took effect in January and requires offenders to split time between jail and community service.
Sheriff Bill Brown has previously said Prop. 47 doesn’t change the fact that the aging South Coast jail complex is still too crowded, outdated and inadequate.
The $96 million, 376-bed jail project was designed with more space for programming and for treatment of the mentally ill, but speakers argued the ill shouldn’t be punished.
Two Santa Barbara City College EOPS students who spent time in and out of jail (one for chronic substance abuse) spoke about giving offenders a chance to wipe a felony off their record.
A panel boasting Farris, local clinical psychologist Gil Reyes and longtime public defender attorney Bob Dahlstedt answered questions and agreed the data the county used to determine need for the new jail — the Sheriff’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Jail Overcrowding report in 2008 — was itself outdated.
Organizers vowed this was the first forum of many, since they’re trying to build an army to fight construction of the new jail.
— Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.