Last year, over 1,700 inmates in Santa Barbara County were released early due to jail overcrowding.

While the facilities can only hold up to 818 inmates, approximately 1,000 inmates crowd the jails today. Additionally, according to county statistics, 85 percent of inmates in Santa Barbara County jails are substance abusers, while 38 percent are gang affiliated and 29 percent use mental health medications. With all this in mind, the County Sheriff’s Dept. Blue Ribbon Commission presented its multi-tier plan to the County Board of Supervisors yesterday in an effort to curb the overcrowding of jails.

Suggestions included building a new jail facility, establishing intervention and recovery programs and exploring the processes within the criminal justice system that have led to high levels of incarceration.

A key component in the BRC’s proposal is the construction of a new North County jail. The proposed facility, which would be built near Santa Maria, would contain an additional 300 beds and cost approximately $80 million to build.

However, some board members said the project is too expensive. In response, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the county could not afford to remain idle.

“It is not a question of can we afford this, but rather can we afford not to,” Brown said. “For the last 20 years we’ve just being throwing a Band-Aid on [the overcrowding problem], and our criminal justice system has suffered as a result.”

Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said the project would require a lot of extra funding and research.

“We don’t have the luxury of having extra money, and we certainly don’t have the money for the jail, but we have to find ways of raising that money,” Wolf said.

Yet, the BRC cited that the County would not have to cover all the costs. With the passage of Assembly Bill 900, Santa Barbara County could apply for $58 million in state funds for a new jail facility – the stipulation being that the county must provide the state a location to build a Secure Community Reentry Facility. The Commission recommended constructing a 500-bed SCRF near the new 300-bed facility proposed in the report.

According to the group’s report, having the two facilities near each other would force the state to provide a portion of the county’s yearly operating costs, which is estimated at $15 million a year. Brown stated on numerous occasions that he would like to work with the state on this issue, and he will make his case for AB900 in front of the Board at next week’s meeting.

“My message is that we need to seize the moment and take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity,” Brown said.

However, the BRC stated that a new facility alone would not entirely solve the problem with overcrowding. The group’s report claims the issue requires significant community investment in dealing with drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, homelessness and gang problems.

By confronting these issues with both the incarcerated population and community as a whole, the Commission said the crime rate as well as the recidivism rate – the number of released prisoners sent back to jail for new crimes – will decline.

The commission also suggested an expansion of probation and pre-trail release programs, as well as an increase in intermediate sanctions to reduce the pressure on the jail system. Currently, 40 probation officers supervise 6,600 people in Santa Barbara County.

The intermediate sanctions suggested by the Commission include a Work Furlough Program – which would allow convicted criminals to go to work during the day but spend nights and weekends in jail – and a Day Reporting Center, which would have some inmates spend their days in jail but allow them to return home at night, in addition to a state-of-the-art GPS monitoring system to increase public safety.

A third component of the plan would establish a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to study the criminal justice system, prioritize issues and provide oversight concerning the processes that lead to jail overcrowding. According to Sheriff Brown, similar groups were formed in other counties and have seen great success.

He said he is optimistic that the county can put an end to this perennial problem and in so doing, act as a model for others dealing with jail overcrowding.

“What we have here is an opportunity to be the leader in solving jail overcrowding and, in the process, do something the public can be proud of,” Brown said.