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Santa Maria Sun / News

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Santa Barbara County looks to permanently reduce the number of inmates held in jail


Hundreds of inmates have been released from the Santa Barbara County Jail to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the facility, and county leaders would like it to stay that way.

In response to calls from the public for criminal justice reforms, Santa Barbara County officials are looking at ways to permanently reduce the number of people in its jail.

A lower population and a felony diversion program are some of the changes the county Board of Supervisors said it would like to see moving forward.

“If we really want to erase systemic racism from our criminal justice system, then we have an enormous to-do list,” 1st District Supervisor Das Williams said during a recent meeting on criminal justice and racial equity.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died earlier this year in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, protests erupted throughout the country—including locally—calling for structural changes in law enforcement practices and how police departments are funded.

The county Board of Supervisors held a hearing on June 11 to begin a local discussion on these concerns. The board held a subsequent meeting on July 16, where the leaders of the county’s criminal justice departments presented a report with 15 recommendations on changes the agencies could make. 

Much of the six-hour meeting revolved around methods and practices the agencies could pursue to reduce the average daily population in the county jail. Assistant County Executive Officer Barney Melekian said this is something the county has been working on over the past few years but has ramped up at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to Melekian’s presentation, the average daily population of the county jail was about 1,073 in 2016. This had dropped to about 903 in 2019 and was on pace to reach about 753 by the year 2027. The reduction was accomplished through various means, including a focus on putting people through diversion programs rather than locking them up. 

In response to the public health crisis, the Sheriff’s Office began releasing people from the jail to limit the spread of the virus. In June, the average daily population of the jail was 569, a number significantly lower than the average daily population of June 2019, which was 900.

Sheriff Bill Brown said a few changes contributed to this reduction. First, his office extended when inmates can qualify for early release. Normally it’s 21 days prior to when they’re supposed to be released, but right now it’s 30 days. 

Additionally, he pointed to the state Judicial Council’s decision to implement a zero-dollar bail order, which meant that people arrested for misdemeanors and many nonviolent felonies wouldn’t have to post bail to leave jail before their trial date. 

This was a mandatory statewide order in effect from mid-April to mid-June, after which local courts could decide whether to continue its implementation. On June 19, the county’s Superior Court Presiding Judge Michael Carrozzo ordered this policy to remain in effect until further notice. 

Sheriff Brown told the board that it’s too early to know how this reduction in the jail’s population has affected public safety. However, he noted that of the nearly 500 people who have been released from the jail early since March, about 12 percent have been rearrested once or multiple times since then. Some of these people have committed serious crimes, he said, including auto theft, assault with a deadly weapon, and domestic violence.

County Public Defender Tracy Macuga pushed back on the sheriff’s argument and said that instead of focusing on the small percentage who have reoffended, the county should pay attention to the nearly 90 percent of people who have not. Many of these people were only in jail because they were too poor to post their bail, she said.

“The decrease in the jail population has proven what champions of reform have been saying for years: Money bail is an economic issue, not a public safety issue,” Macuga said. “Money bail unfairly and unjustly incarcerates the poor and disadvantaged, many of whom are people of color.” 

While the discussion of the jail’s population dealt with racial equity—as people of color are incarcerated at disproportionate levels—the subject of race wasn’t directly addressed during the first half of the six-hour meeting on July 16, which multiple public speakers were quick to point out.

“I think it was disturbing that there was almost no mention of race in the first two hours of the hearing and it’s titled racial equity,” speaker Jonathan Abboud said.

Members of the public also called for reforms that weren’t mentioned in the report that county staff presented to the board. This included calls for a civilian review board to oversee complaints filed against the Sheriff’s Office and a change in the office’s use of force policy to focus on de-escalation—which Brown said is already the case. 

Many of the commenters also called on the board to dedicate the thousands of dollars the county will save from housing fewer people in its jail to community-based programs. Dylan Griffith, the development director for Freedom 4 Youth—a nonprofit that provides services to those in and out of the county’s justice system—said the money the county saves should not be reallocated within the Sheriff’s Office. 

“That money needs to go to community-based alternatives and not back into law enforcement. … This is how we as a county can be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to the justice system,” Griffith said.

Three board members approved adopting the 15 recommendations aimed at reducing the jail population along with a few that supervisors proposed, including the creation of a felony diversion program. Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam abstained from voting on the measure, and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino missed the vote after leaving the meeting early.

Adam declined voting on the motion after stating that he didn’t believe the county’s law enforcement is systemically racist.

“If you look at the faces of our law enforcement staff … you’ll see all colors in there,” Adam said. “The idea that that group of people is systemically racist is really just laughable.”

But 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart called the moment a “once in a generation opportunity” to permanently reduce the county’s jail population and begin eliminating ways the local criminal justice system disproportionately affects people of color.

“The significant reduction in the jail population that’s occurred in response to COVID-19 is starting to demonstrate our county’s ability to reduce incarceration without compromising public safety,” Hart said. 

Reach Staff Writer Zac Ezzone at

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