Probation Chief Tanja Heitman stands outside the downtown Santa Barbara Office. The department is already the expert on community supervision, according to the county, and is now partnering with the Sheriff’s Office on the alternative sentencing program.
Santa Barbara County Probation Department chief Tanja Heitman, outside the downtown Santa Barbara office. Credit: Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo

People serving jail time on electronic monitoring are now supervised by the Santa Barbara County Probation Department, and county supervisors hope the move will boost participation in the alternative sentencing program.

The Sheriff’s Department still has authority to screen candidates to serve their jail sentences on electronic monitoring instead of remaining in custody.

Starting in July, the Probation Department took over supervision for participants and connects them to programs and services.

The county has been evaluating options to reduce its jail population and a robust alternative sentencing program is one way to do that.

The alternative sentencing program has people serve their jail sentences on electronic monitoring.

It’s like house arrest, Probation Department chief Tanja Heitman says, and people are generally not allowed to leave their homes except to go to work and take care of “key responsibilities.”

When criminal realignment passed in 2011, it pushed more people to serve time in county jails who previously would have been in state prisons. The county anticipated more low-risk people in custody would be shifted to alternative sentencing on electronic monitoring, Heitman said.

“And that did happen for a period of time, numbers went up, but more recently they have gone down and that was attributed largely to a change in the jail population” and policies like zero bail, she said.

The Sheriff’s Department, which decides who is eligible for alternative sentencing, didn’t feel as many inmates qualified for the program, she said.

The Board of Supervisors asked the two departments to collaborate on a program, Heitman said, and a memorandum of understanding was developed with an effective date of July 1.

Chart showing number of people in alternative sentencing program each year since 2016

(Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk illustration)

The participation numbers were fairly stable for several years and then dipped in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Then in 2020 and beyond, court closures and changes to booking criteria affected the totals, sheriff’s spokeswoman Raquel Zick said.

There were between 35 and 80 people in the program at a time in 2021, according to the Sheriff’s Department data dashboard.

Factors the Sheriff’s Department considers for eligibility in the program includes, according to Zick: “Criminal history, risk to re-offend factors, residency, past or present in-custody behavior, current charges, if courts have endorsed the person to serve on the program, they have a working phone and voicemail so we can communicate with them, circumstances of the crime, pre-sentencing reports.”

All applications for alternative sentencing are considered, but in general, people with misdemeanor and felony sentences for drugs, theft and DUI could be eligible for alternative sentencing, Zick said.

Sheriff’s Lieutenant Selim Celmeta

Sheriff’s Lt. Selim Celmeta speaks during the Aug. 30 Board of Supervisors meeting when the county extended the GPS ankle monitor contract for the alternative sentencing program. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

On Aug. 30, the Board of Supervisors extended its contract with Satellite Tracking of People LLC for GPS ankle monitors used in the alternative sentencing program.

There were 65 people in the program as of then, sheriff’s Lt. Selim Celmeta reported to the supervisors.

Supervisor Gregg Hart pointed out that the Sheriff’s Department had not enrolled enough people in the program to use all the money allocated to the STOP contract since 2016. There was $170,000 left of a $900,000 budget.

He said the alternative sentencing program is an important way to reduce the number of people in the jail, and the board wants to increase participation.

County supervisors Gregg Hart, left, and Das Williams said expanding the alternative sentencing program was a key strategy in reducing the long-term population of people incarcerated in the two county jails.

County Supervisors Gregg Hart, left, and Das Williams said expanding the alternative sentencing program was a key strategy in reducing the long-term population of people incarcerated in the two county jails. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

“My hope would be with this next four-year contract that we don’t end up with money on the table,” Hart said.

Celmeta said the number of participants declined due to the pandemic and a changing jail population.

“As we speak, we are actually at record low numbers in terms of people sentenced and doing time in county jails, so that affects the number of people in the program,” he said.

Having the Probation Department take over monitoring will give sheriff’s custody staff more time to recruit potential participants, hand out applications and interview people, Celmeta said.

“I’m a little concerned about the numbers going down so much in this program,” Supervisor Bob Nelson said. “It seems like something we should try to move toward as a county.”

The program also has cost savings, Nelson said: the STOP ankle monitors cost $3.10 per person per day compared to costs of having someone in jail custody. Even after staff screening and supervision is factored in, it likely costs much less than keeping someone in jail custody, which was estimated at $148 per person per day in 2020.

“This is a vital and key strategy for the sustainability of our public safety departments,” Supervisor Das Williams said.

Sheriff’s Lieutenant Selim Celmeta and Probation Chief Tanja Heitman answer questions during the Aug. 30 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Sheriff’s Lt. Selim Celmeta and Probation Department chief Tanja Heitman answer questions during the Aug. 30 Board of Supervisors meeting. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

“… Our ability to arrest and detain the people who really belong in jail hinges upon our ability to have the discretion for other sentencing possibilities for people who might have better results not in jail.”

Moving people out of jail allows them to participate in community-based programs like anger management and drug treatment sooner, Heitman said.

The Probation Department already has relationships and contracts with local providers, and staff members who do case management, she added.

“The sooner we start the program, the sooner they can benefit from it and help reduce their chance of reoffending,” Heitman said.

“And with any of our criminal justice population getting them a job, helping them keep their job, or helping them pursue their education are the two biggest things we can do to help minimize their chance of reoffending, and people can do both of those more successfully than they can do in jail,” she said.

The Probation Department also manages a pre-trial supervision program for people who have not had their criminal court cases resolved, and the probation supervision program.

Some people in those groups do have GPS devices, but Heitman said they have much more freedom of movement than people in the alternative sentencing program.

People in alternative sentencing receive custody credits the same as they would for time in jail, which is why they’re monitored closely, she added.

People used to be charged fees to participate, but now the program is available at no cost, she said.

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