Main Jail near Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara County has about 800 people currently in custody at the Main Jail near Santa Barbara, shown here, and the Northern Branch Jail near Santa Maria. The long-term population projection is 800-900 people, but could be reduced with a few policy changes, a consultant report concluded.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara County could significantly reduce its future jail population by implementing some policy changes and expanding some of its existing diversion programs, consultant Michael Wilson concluded in a report he presented to the Board of Supervisors last week. 

Wilson reviewed the jail population projections in the context of pandemic policies and programs diverting lower-level offenders from custody. 

The jail population was historically in the range of 1,100-1,200 inmates (above the rated bed capacity) and declined to about 1,000 by 2017, consultant Michael Wilson said.

The number of people in jail dropped to an unprecedented 600 or so in 2020 and 2021, mostly due to the pandemic-related zero-bail policy, and has increased to about 800 now, Wilson said.

“The jail population increased around 100 beds immediately following changes in county practice in October of 2021,” his report found. “When the practice of zero-bail for warrants was no longer used, the jail population immediately increased.”

If nothing changed, he projects that the county’s average daily jail population would be 800-900 people for the rest of this decade. 

Wilson presented a list of policies that could reduce the jail population by about 200 inmates, including expanding the electronic monitoring program; diverting more people who are accused of less serious offenses and have limited criminal history; reducing the jail time for people booked for outstanding warrants; and reducing the number of people booked for probation violations.  

The county’s criminal justice departments (including Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney, Public Defender and Probation) have been working on system improvements collaboratively for several years, and implemented pilot and long-term programs to evaluate and reduce the in-custody population.

Some of the options presented in Wilson’s report line up with efforts already underway. 

In addition to the declining jail population, the Probation Department is seeing a dramatic decrease in its population (adults and juveniles), and an expansion of pre-trial supervision services could continue to decrease the number of people in custody, the report noted. 

As of late June, there were 584 people in the pre-trial supervision program, which serves people awaiting trial for their criminal cases. 

The receiving area for the Main Jail near Santa Barbara.

The receiving area for the Main Jail near Santa Barbara.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

People in custody in Santa Barbara County are housed in the Main Jail near Santa Barbara and the new, smaller Northern Branch Jail near Santa Maria.

This includes people who are being held before the resolution of their cases (pre-trial, or unsentenced); people who have been sentenced and are serving time in custody; and people waiting on transfers to state prison or state hospital facilities.

As of June 2022, 70% of the jail system population was unsentenced. About 33% of people were open to probation (if sentenced for the allegations), and 77% of the people in custody were not, according to the Sheriff’s Office data dashboard.

The jail population projections also assume that law enforcement agency bookings into the jail remain the same, Wilson noted.

Santa Barbara police have booked people accused of misdemeanors at a much higher rate (more than double) than Santa Maria, a similarly sized city.

Now that the Northern Branch Jail is open, near Santa Maria, there’s the possibility that Santa Maria police start booking misdemeanors at a higher rate since the facility is closer and requires less transportation time for arresting officers.

In 2019, Santa Barbara police booked 2,338 people for misdemeanors. The Santa Maria department booked 1,052 people, according to Sheriff’s Office custody records Noozhawk obtained through a public records request.

Santa Barbara police bookings accounted for about 25% of total bookings pre-pandemic, Santa Maria police bookings into the jail accounted for about 15%, and county Sheriff’s Office bookings (including contract cities) accounted for about 35%.

Among all agencies, there were between 961 and 1,268 jail bookings per month in 2019. That number started dropping in early 2020 due to pandemic-related policies.

Wilson said there has not been a strong relationship between crime rates and the jail population historically, but increasing crime rates could cause an increase in people booked to the jail.

Other factors – such as whether police are arresting more people, or the District Attorney’s Office is prosecuting more people, or judges’ sentencing decisions – “those things typically have a larger impact on the jail population than crime going up and down,” Wilson said.

Report Findings 

Wilson concluded that the percentage of people in custody who were unsentenced increased during the pandemic. 

While jail bookings fell throughout the decade, 2011 to 2021, the length of stay increased, he also found. 

Santa Barbara County’s jail population has declined over the past decade, and dropped significantly during the pandemic, consultant Michael Wilson said Tuesday.

Santa Barbara County’s jail population has declined over the past decade, and dropped significantly during the pandemic, consultant Michael Wilson said.  (MW Consulting photo)

A consultant report projects that Santa Barbara County’s jail population would be 800-900 people per day for the next decade if nothing changed. That number could be reduced by changing some policies and expanding some efforts that area already underway.

A consultant report projects that Santa Barbara County’s jail population would be 800-900 people per day for the next decade if nothing changed.  (MW Consulting photo)

Wilson presented some demographic information about people in custody that even Board of Supervisors members didn’t know, including the fact that only 10% of jail bed usage was for people with only a new offense. 

About 90% of people in the jail are there for a more complex set of reasons, such as arrest warrants, a probation violation, and/or an arrest for a new criminal allegation, Wilson said.

These people may have a new arrest for breaking into a car, but they also had an arrest warrant for a failure to appear in court for another case, or they’re on probation, Wilson said.

About 40% of people in the county jails did not have a new arrest when they were booked (they had an outstanding warrant, a probation violation, or were booked for sentencing, for example).

The other 60% of people did have a new arrest when they were booked, Wilson said. 

“I was shocked,” Fifth District County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said after the presentation at Tuesday’s meeting “I’m one of those people that was like, that’s not what I understood jail to be. I’m learning here, too.”

If most people in jail have more complex circumstances, the system can’t generalize; it needs to evaluate each case, he said.

“It actually makes the community safer when you have the right people in jail and not the wrong people using up all the resources,” Lavagnino said.

County supervisors said in their discussion Tuesday that efforts to reduce the jail population are not about hitting a specific number, but about making sure the people in jail custody are the people who should be in custody for public safety.

Probation Chief Tanja Heitman spoke during the meeting, and said it’s important to connect health and human services to the criminal justice partners.

“I just want to emphasize that every piece of what you’re talking about, reducing that recidivism, we won’t be fully successful unless we have Behavioral Wellness and the services they provide, both drug and alcohol (treatment) as well as mental health services, fully integrated with what we’re doing with criminal justice,” she said.

The supervisors but did not take specific action on the consultant report presented Tuesday.  

“I think the report today highlights the fact that we are on the right track, and we are doing the right things,” Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart said.

First District Supervisor Das Williams said it could be easier to recruit and retain custody deputies if the jail population decreases and there is less mandatory overtime for staff.

“We can’t reach the staffing we want to reach because the existing workforce is being stretched so thin,” he said.

As of Tuesday, there were 791 people in custody, including 330 in the Northern Branch Jail and 461 in the Main Jail, Sheriff Bill Brown said. That includes 21 people waiting on transfers to prison and 31 waiting on transfers to the Department of State Hospitals, he said.

Brown said a jail would ideally operate at no more than 85% capacity because of classification issues (certain people cannot be housed in a unit together) and the need to “spread inmates out more” due to COVID-19.

The Main Jail in the Santa Barbara area exceeded its rated bed capacity from 2015 until March 2020, when COVID-19-era restrictions reduced the number of people in custody.

The current system has 1,034 rated beds with the addition of the Northern Branch Jail and the county plans to renovate part of the Main Jail complex, which could affect the bed capacity.

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