The Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing Thursday on racial equity and the criminal justice system in response to the protests against police brutality that have drawn thousands of local residents to the streets and millions of people to demonstrations across the country. 

Santa Barbara County Supervisors Gregg Hart and Das Williams said in a letter to colleagues that the county “has a role to play in confronting systemic racism and advancing equity in our communities.”

During the hearing, supervisors expect to hear hours of public comment from community members and may request information from its departments or give direction to staff, if there is enough support for any action.

During a budget presentation on public safety departments Tuesday, Hart said the COVID-19 pandemic has given the county a unique opportunity to look at how it operates its criminal justice system and make long-lasting changes.

The Main Jail inmate population is the lowest it has been in decades — below 600 versus an average daily population of 900 before pandemic-related policies were initiated to reduce bookings and allow early releases.

Santa Barbara County has several diversion programs in place, including grant-funded efforts and restorative courts, which will likely be discussed as part of Thursday’s hearing, Hart said.

People held in custody in the county jail are disproportionately people of color, people in poverty, and people who are suffering from mental illness, he said.

In 2018, 8 percent of the jail population was black, compared to 2 percent of the county population, Hart said. In the same year, Hispanic residents represented 41 percent of the county population, and 56 percent of people in jail custody, he said.

“These numbers are facts that cannot be denied and demand a different response,” Hart said. “We cannot do business as we have going forward. Our community is demanding a different response and the events that have transpired that have provided us the opportunity by reducing the jail population need to be extended and continued aggressively.”

Law enforcement agencies are working collaboratively to divert people from custody, he said, and need to continue doing so.

“Even though it is normal for many jails across the state to have 70 percent of their population awaiting trial, that is not okay,” Williams said. “It is unjust because a percentage of those folks will be found innocent and it’s a waste of money.”

If the county can find alternatives to custody, more money could be attributed to community-based patrols, he added.

“Except in cases of a complex murder, it’s just not acceptable to be having this large a number of people to be awaiting trial in jail,” Williams said.

In 2018, about two-thirds of the in-custody population of the Main Jail were not fully sentenced, according to information released in response to a California Public Records Act request from Noozhawk.

Sheriff’s Department records also 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.

Superior Courts have been closed to most business for months because of the pandemic, and defense attorneys have fought for pre-trial releases of people in custody. 

Supervisor Steve Lavagnino also voiced support for community-based programs, and said he wants to see the impacts to crime rates of having a significantly lower jail population.

He also advocated for more First 5 funding, saying “it’s a mistake made for decades that we put way more into enforcement than we do at the beginning.”

Supervisor Joan Hartmann said the county should evaluate the right resources for each circumstance, which may mean not sending armed deputies for every type of 9-1-1 call.

“Do we need officers for every routine traffic report, for truancy, for homelessness? Maybe there are other ways to identify the need and people even better trained to respond to it,” she said.

Thursday’s hearing starts at 9 a.m. and will be broadcast on CSBTV and the county website here.

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