The stress on Santa Barbara County jails over the past decade has almost busted the concrete foundations on which the nearly impenetrable fortresses rest. With prisoners packed in tightly, some sleeping on the floor at night, the Sheriff’s Dept. has begrudgingly allowed for the early release of several inmates to make room for newer “guests.”

Jail overcrowding has plagued the county’s top cops since the 1990s, but another associated problem has been growing for even longer; the average jail’s lifespan is approximately 30 years, yet the county jail has not been modified for 34 years, and time is ticking away.

After years of debate, there is a new sheriff in town, and he has promised to solve the problem, but it won’t be an easy battle.

The Problem

For Sheriff Bill Brown, the problem is simple arithmetic. As the years have gone by and the county population has grown, the number of jail cells has remained almost constant, he said. Throughout his campaign, and during his first 100 days in office, Brown has placed the blame squarely on outdated infrastructure.

“The crux of the problem is that our jail infrastructure was built in the 1970s, and has had minimal additions,” Brown said. “Our infrastructure has been outpaced by our population growth.”

Along with overcrowding, the aging facilities have created a slew of other problems for the county, Brown said. Most drastically, the Sheriff’s Dept. has been forced to shorten non-violent criminals’ stays in the county jail, just to ensure that more inmates can fit in.

“We have had to adjust our criteria for who we incarcerate and how long they stay. People that should be in jail aren’t,” Brown said. “When this starts happening, you start to lose the integrity of the entire criminal justice system.”

Due to a cap on the numbers of prisoners allowed in each facility and a California Superior Court ruling, the county only has one other option besides releasing non-violent prisoners early – incarcerate fewer people.

The county has sentenced law-breakers to other punitive programs, but the net effect is, as 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone put it, that there are people on the streets that were sentenced to not be on the streets.

Sociology professor Nikki Jones, who has a Ph.D. in criminology and teaches at UCSB, sees the situation in a different light. Since jails across the state are overflowing, and the crime rate has dropped, the problem, Jones said, does not lie in the size of county jails but instead in the criminal justice system itself.

“Over the last decade or so, the crime rate has dropped off significantly from record highs in the early ’90s and late ’90s,” she said. “This introduces a serious contradiction: Why is it that our incarcerated population continues to grow even though crime isn’t increasing?”

“Tough on crime” policies and mandatory sentences like the Three Strikes rule have more than made up for the drop in criminal activity, Jones said.

“These policy changes increase the number of men and women who are incarcerated in our nation’s jails and prisons and puts pressure on local institutions, like county jails, that do not have the infrastructure to warehouse – as many of our facilities now do – the large numbers of people who enter its doors,” Jones said.

Regardless of the cause, Firestone said the problem has gotten so bad that there are 10 to 20 more convicts than there are beds every night in the county jail, forcing prisoners to spend the night on the ground.

Possible Solutions

In lieu of overhauling the entire criminal justice system, the most obvious solution for officials has been to build a new prison. The idea has been raised many times and in increasing fervor as the overcrowding has become more severe.

The most popular plan of the moment calls for the new jail to be built in the northern portion of the county, near Santa Maria. Sheriff Brown, whose campaign pushed the jail issue hard, said the proposed North County jail could house 800 inmates, and decisively solve the overcrowding problem.

But, naturally, it would not be cheap.

The daunting $153 million price tag – which would also include an estimated annual operation cost of anywhere from $19 to 30 million – has kept the facility from becoming a reality.

The Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors, which is ultimately in charge of the funding, feels that the bill is too steep, and Firestone said the public agrees. According to the supervisor, a poll was given to the public asking whether they would be in favor of an increase in the sales tax to fund the proposed prison – the poll came back a resounding “no.”

State-Funded Jail

However, recent state legislation has given Brown another shot at fulfilling his campaign promises. Under a deal reached last month between the governor and state legislators, $7.4 billion of state funds will go into prison and rehabilitation programs, and $1.2 billion of that has been earmarked for local jail beds – the largest sum of money ever allocated by the state for jails.

Due to the severity of area’s problem and the amount of work the county has already put into trying to solve it, Santa Barbara is well positioned to receive some of those funds, Brown said.

The proposed state-funded facility would have 800 beds and the county would only have to pay for three-eighths of the construction and a portion of the operational costs.

But, as Firestone and Brown have both said, “The devil is in the details.” The catch is that of the 800 total beds, 500 would be reserved for state prisoners, as opposed to county prisoners. The legislature also requires that the facility would have a re-entry station, aimed at better preparing convicts for their re-entry into society.

The opposition has argued that the state funding comes with too many strings attached, but Brown argues the prison would still be a great benefit.

“Sure there could be some additional costs, but we would benefit from an economy of scale. We are getting a long-term solution for a much smaller cost,” Brown said. “It is a great benefit to us to accept a joint facility with the state.”

Furthermore, with the current recidivism rate – the percentage of released prisoners that return to committing crimes and are caught – at 70 percent, Brown and state legislators have applauded the required re-entry stations.

The high recidivism rate is a particular problem for Jones, who said that educational programs inside prisons would help reduce the number of readmissions.

“Since 95 percent of people who enter jails and prison eventually are released, and our jails and prisons – especially in California – offer little educational or treatment programs for people who are incarcerated, we have set a large number of men and women up for failure once they are released from these facilities,” she said.

For Now

To help persuade the public to accept the deal, Brown has created a “blue-ribbon” panel of experts from various disciplines to look into the proposed solutions. He said he hopes that the public will see the multi-disciplined group and know that the sheriff is not just asking the county for unnecessary funds, but that the proposal is well researched and well founded. He believes that this approach is much more marketable to the public.

In the meantime, at least until the North County jail issue is solved, Brown is looking for short-term solutions.

One of his originally proposed options is already off the table. On the campaign trail, Brown proposed shipping inmates over to a vacant jail facility in Tulare County, which was empty due to a lack of funding in the county. Since then, the county has procured funds, and all beds in the jail are accounted for.

Now, the sheriff’s short-term solutions include an agreement with the Lompoc City Jail to house county inmates; efforts to use more home incarcerations; a remodeling of older facilities; and a change of the Lompoc County holding facility from a Type I facility to a Type II facility. The change would allow the facility to hold prisoners for longer than the current 96-hour limit, he said.

But no matter what the county builds, Jones said the underlying societal problems will remain.

“Ultimately, this is not a problem that we can build our way out of,” she said.

Until jails offer college courses, General Education Development programs, mental health and addiction treatments, the problem will never truly be solved, Jones said.

“Ultimately,” she said, “the real solution to this problem must come from outside the criminal justice system.”