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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on January 6th, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 45 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 45

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office blames an increase in crime on a rule aimed at decreasing jail populations amid COVID-19

By KASEY BUBNASH

By the end of 2020, reports of the most serious violent crimes were trending 10 percent higher than the immediately preceding three-year average in areas of Santa Barbara County served by the Sheriff’s Office. 

Reports of arson were trending 41 percent higher, reported robberies were up by 30 percent, and reports of forcible rape were up by 14 percent, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, who presented highlights of the county’s latest crime statistics at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Dec. 1. 


COVID TINDERBOX
While the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office says relaxed bail rules aimed at decreasing jail and prison populations are leading to an increase in serious crime, inmate advocates say COVID-19 is the bigger safety risk.
FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

“We’re also seeing a 23 percent increase in property crimes,” Brown said at the meeting, “and rural crimes especially have spiked 52 percent over the three-year average, again since the pandemic.” 

And that, he said, is just in areas that fall within the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office, including all unincorporated areas of the county and the cities of Solvang, Buellton, Carpentaria, and Goleta. The rates only continue to rise when you throw in the cities of Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, he said. 

Reported crimes were up in 2020 in both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, and the same is true for homicides throughout the U.S., according to a preliminary FBI report. While many officials say it’s too early to tell what might be causing the spike and the causes are likely multifaceted, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office is largely pointing to emergency orders aimed at decreasing jail and prison populations amid the pandemic, an effort to prevent the mass COVID-19 outbreaks among both inmates and staff that have been common throughout the nation since March.  

In April, the Judicial Council of California adopted a statewide emergency bail schedule that set bail at $0 for most people accused—but not yet tried—of misdemeanors and low-level felonies. Though the council rescinded its order in the summer as the state started to reopen, courts in a number of counties, including both Santa Barbara and SLO, extended their “zero bail” schedules locally. 

“So people who would have normally been held on bail are being released back into the public,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Raquel Zick said. 

Between Santa Barbara and SLO counties, hundreds of inmates awaiting trial in jails were released because of zero bail orders, and hundreds more arrestees have been released after initial bookings. 

Zick said a “significant number” of those who have been arrested for crimes, booked, and then released on zero bail have been caught reoffending, though Zick couldn’t say exactly how many. 

That’s an issue the SLO County Sheriff’s Office has noticed as well, according to Public Information Officer Tony Cipolla. Since the zero bail schedule went into effect in April, roughly 450 people who would normally await trial in jail or have to pay bail were released free of charge. 

From April to August last year, the SLO County Sheriff’s Office recorded 59 instances in which people released on zero bail reoffended. Now, because of some work between the Sheriff’s Office, local courts, SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow, and other law enforcement agencies in the area, Cipolla said a person who reoffends while out on zero bail is no longer eligible for future zero bail in SLO County. 

“Since then,” Cipolla wrote in an email to the Sun, “the numbers [of reoffenders] have dropped significantly.” 

From January to October of 2020, reports of serious crimes—homicides, rapes, robberies, domestic violence, burglary, aggravated assaults, larceny and motor vehicle theft, and arson—jumped by about 20 percent for the SLO County Sheriff’s Office compared to the same time last year. While there were about 1,140 of those crimes reported to the Sheriff’s Office from January to October in 2019, about 1,370 were reported in 2020. 

Still, Cipolla said crime statistics always vary from year to year and it can be difficult to say why. 

“It’s reasonable to assume because of the general unease, tension, and anxiety associated with a lockdown, that there would be an increase in crimes,” he wrote to the Sun, “as well as the fact that county jails all over the state have early released thousands of inmates back into our communities.”

But Lea Villegas, chief trial deputy with the Santa Barbara County Offices of the Public Defender, said she has yet to see any hard data supporting Sheriff Brown’s assertion that crime has increased dramatically during the pandemic, let alone connecting such an increase to zero bail. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office denied the Sun’s Public Records Act request to see the county’s crime statistics from 2020, saying that data for the full year won’t be compiled and available to the public until February 2021. Sheriff Brown wasn’t available to expand on the data he presented on Dec. 1 before the Sun’s press time. 

“While we don’t know for certain whether there has been a surge in crime in this county, we do know for certain that there has been a surge in COVID-19 transmissions, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Villegas wrote in an email to the Sun. “We cannot forget that we are still in the middle of a pandemic. Public health is public safety. Right now, the most important data point that should be driving the public safety discussion is not how many cars have been burglarized, but rather how many lives have been saved.”

Kim Shean, deputy chief of Adult Services in Santa Barbara County’s Probation Department, helps to facilitate a relatively new program that allows people facing criminal charges to leave jail while awaiting trial without paying bail. From July 2019 to July 2020, Shean said 574 people entered the pretrial supervision program, and 339 were successful, meaning they showed up at all of their court hearings and did not reoffend. 

While those numbers would suggest a majority of people awaiting trial do not reoffend, Shean said there are still dangerous people being released on zero bail. In those cases, Shean said law enforcement officers can request bail enhancement from a judge, which, if granted, could significantly increase a person’s bail amount despite the zero bail schedule. 

“So that is an opportunity that’s there that can be used throughout any county in California,” she said, “and that appears to be underutilized here locally.”

Inmate advocates and supporters of the zero bail schedule say that decreasing prison and jail populations is the only truly effective way to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks that impact not only inmates, but their communities. 

Santa Barbara County Jail has a long history of being overcrowded to the point that some inmates have been left without beds. Aaron Fischer is an attorney with Disability Rights California, and he’s representing several current and former Santa Barbara County Jail inmates in a class action lawsuit regarding alleged unsafe conditions at the jail. 

Fischer said the Sheriff’s Office is working hard to keep coronavirus rates down in the jail through strict hygiene protocols and aggressive surveillance testing of inmates and staff, however in congregate living situations it’s difficult. 

Jails and prisons, he said, have proven to be tinderboxes for mass COVID-19 outbreaks, and locally such facilities are responsible for thousands of cases and a few deaths. Jails, which largely hold people who haven’t yet been convicted of crimes, in both SLO and Santa Barbara counties have had multiple outbreaks among staff and inmates, as have the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo and the Federal Correctional Institution of Lompoc

“It has never been more dangerous for a person to be in a crowded jail with poor ventilation than it is right now,” Fischer said. 

But it’s not just inmates who are impacted by these outbreaks. There’s a steady flow of people entering and leaving jails every day—people being booked into custody or released, family and friends visiting, staff coming and going. When inmates and staff become seriously ill, Fischer said they take up the already limited ICU beds and hospital staff and time. 

“An outbreak inside the jail puts the community at risk,” he said, later adding, “Releasing people two or three or even eight months before their sentence is up, with good discharge planning, is not going to create extreme public safety risk. Keeping larger numbers of people in crowded jails will.”

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@newtimesslo.com










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