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Jail overcrowding once again an issue in Santa Barbara County

Officials say the six decade old Main Santa Barbara County Jail is outmoded, and needs to be downsized. The county is planning to expand its Northern Branch jail in Santa Maria to bridge the gap, but there's controversy about how much capacity should be added.

County Supervisors approve plan to downsize outdated Main Jail, and expand new Santa Maria facility, but Sheriff says it isn't enough capacity.

Santa Barbara County’s jail system was overcrowded for decades. Several county grand juries chastised the county for not fixing the problem.

The issue was the high cost of building a new jail. "I inherited a jail system which was bursting at the seams," said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. "Storage rooms had been converted into cell space, triple bunks were put into cells designed for one inmate."

After years of effort, and a combination of county funds and a huge state grant, the opening of the 376 bed, 133,000 square foot Northern Branch Jail in Santa Maria last year helped ease the problem. Or, so everyone thought.

The county was sued over the lack of accessible facilities at its main Santa Barbara County jail facility. The county reached a settlement. But, studies showed that just renovating the six decade old complex was unrealistic.

The plan is to spend $17 million to bring some of the Main Jail facilities up to date. It would be turned into a booking and arraignment holding center, with the number of beds going from more than 700 to 128.

To help make up the difference, the county developed proposals to add “pods” to the Northern Branch Jail. Each pod would have 256 beds. There were proposals to add one, one and a half, and two pods. Each pod has a price tag of around $76 million.

The County CEO’s office recommending adding one pod, a five year project which they said is affordable. But, it would reduce the county’s overall jail capacity from more than a thousand to 728. That’s less than the county has in custody now, with the daily census averaging between 750 and 780. The Sheriff says the county needs two pods to meet the county’s needs.

Some county officials, and members of the community say that a number of programs designed to prevent recidivism will reduce the county's need to have as many beds.

But, the Sheriff and some other law enforcement officials say the numbers being proposed are too low, and we could see a return of the overcrowding issue.

It was a contentious issue at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

"We need to build for 20 years for now," said County Supervisor Bob Nelson.

He noted that there's a five year plus timeline on building a new jail facility. He says with the county's population potentially growing, they could be opening up an expansion in five years that's already too small to meet the need.

But, adding more than one pod could add millions of dollars a year in debt to pay off a 30 year loan to finance it. Some county officials say they are reluctant to saddle future county budget with that type of obligation.

And, some think there should be more of a focus on rehabilitation programs, to reduce the need for jail capacity. County Supervisor Das Williams says with a large number of inmates having serious mental health issues, more programs to help them can reduce the need for new cells.

"Where exactly we land is a tough one," said Williams. "I would love to live in world where we could build two (pods), and not occupy them, but I also think that would be dollars that we wouldn't be spending on mental health and treatment beds, as well as attracting and retaining the employees (jail staff)."

At the public hearing, some people called on the county to put more focus on rehabilitation, than new jail construction.

Bill Makler said he represents a group of 40 local defense attorneys.

"We have long advocated for the reduction of jail capacity as a hard limit on jail beds, as the only effect means of reducing the disparate impact of incarceration on communities of color, and the mentally ill."

Santa Maria Police Chief Marc Schneider agrees with expanding mental health services, but says you still also add jail capacity.

"I do understand diversion, and wanting to take care of the mentally ill in the community if there's an alternative to getting them well."

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown was even more blunt.

"Our organization has done as much as we can to address mental illness, as well as substance abuse," said Brown. "It's not somebody gets mental health treatment, or they go into jail. But, there are mentally ill people who are going to have to go into jail, no matter what. They commit crimes. They murder someone. They are going to go to jail."

Brown says if the jail is remodeled and downsized, and just one pod is added, the county would automatically be at capacity.

County Supervisors voted 3-2 to start on the Main Jail renovation and downsizing, and to start planning for one pod. The final decision on adding the pod could still be months away.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.