Santa Barbara County jails are expected to house 800 to 900 inmates for the remainder of the decade unless new policies are enacted to divert more inmates, reduce length of jail stays, expand electronic monitoring, reduce the number of returning probationers and transferring inmates earlier.
If the five recommended policies were adopted, the prison population could be reduced to around 600 inmates, according to a report by a consultant.
However, Sheriff Bill Brown warned that the county should not reduce the number of available beds due to the need to maintain the ability to separate inmates during a pandemic and allow for spikes in crime as well as warrants from the state that affect the number of incarcerated people. .
The oversight board this week heard a report on efforts to improve and streamline the criminal justice system as well as prison population projections and proposed policies that would reform the criminal justice system and reduce the number of inmates.
Michael Wilson of MW Consulting told supervisors that the prison population hovered around 1,000 inmates before the COVID-19 pandemic, but that number fell to a low of around 600 during the pandemic and then rose to around 800. in October 2021.
Wilson noted, however, that while the number of bookings has gone down, the average length of inmate stays has gone up.
An unknown factor is how the new North Branch Jail will affect booking numbers.
Santa Maria police had a lower booking rate than Santa Barbara, likely due to wasted time and costs incurred in transporting arrestees to Santa Barbara’s main jail.
But with the Northern Branch Jail now open in Santa Maria, the number of reservations could increase due to the short transport time and the resulting lower costs.
Cheryl Ellsworth, a retired Riverside County Superior Court judge who is coordinating the county’s efforts, said criminal justice partners are already working on some aspects of the five recommended policy changes.
She said the goal is to focus on the two easiest options — expanding the use of electronic monitoring and reducing the length of stay for people awaiting transfer to state prisons or state hospitals. State – then work on the other three, which will require a bit more planning. .
“We just did something in this county that’s pretty deep,” Ellsworth said of electronic monitoring, nothing that the probation department and the sheriff’s office have agreed to a memorandum of understanding to provide. joint sentencing options for some people.
She said it was time to declare “no more of these extensions” for people awaiting transfer to public facilities.
“It’s time to crack down on this and make judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys say, ‘This is your time. You’re going to state prison. That’s what was determined, ‘instead of lengthening that process and putting people in our system too long when they belong in other places,’ Ellsworth said.
The county is currently assessing the needs and potential of the main jail with plans to renovate the facility, and Janette Pell, director of general services, said the process could reduce the total number of beds from prison less than the 1,034 planned when the North Branch prison was built.
But Brown warned supervisors against reducing bed counts during the renovation process.
“There will always be a fundamental underlying need for prison and incarceration space for inmates who commit more serious offenses … which relate specifically to whether they are violent or crimes against people,” Brown said.
“The number of beds we have should not match the number of inmates we have in prison,” he said, repeating a warning he has delivered before.
Ideally, he said, a prison should not be operating at more than 85% capacity. This means that for 850 prisoners, a prison should have a capacity of 1,000 beds. With 900 beds, the prison could accommodate 765 inmates, and with 800 beds, the number would drop to 680.
As of Tuesday, the county had 791 inmates in custody, with 330 in the North Branch Jail and the remaining 461 in the Main Jail.