Aiming to alleviate overcrowding in the Santa Barbara County Jail, the state conditionally awarded the county with $56.3 million last week to fund the construction of a new jail facility.

The grant, given out by the Corrections Standards Authority Board, recognized Santa Barbara County’s acute need for a new jail facility, ranking the county fifth out of the 14 considered in order of necessity, according to a press release. Additionally, the full sum of money requested by the county was awarded.

Currently, the Santa Barbara County Jail operates under a court-ordered population cap that restricts jail capacity. As a result, many offenders are exempted from incarceration, and many others are released early. Last year, over 1,700 inmates were released early, according to a Blue Ribbon Commission chartered by Sheriff Bill Brown.

The proposed jail project would create an alternative facility in North County to ease the population crunches at the central facility. In accepting the state money for this facility, the county has agreed to allow California to build a Secure Community Reentry Facility designed to rehabilitate and reduce recidivism on county land, as well.

Since entering office, Brown has become a leading advocate of the new jail, lauding it as a solution to the county’s overcrowding problem. In a press release, he said he was happy with the award but still cautious about the future.

“I am extremely pleased that the state recognized our crucial need for a new jail and our continuing commitment to the successful reentry of offenders,” Brown said. “We still have lots of work to do before the new jail is built, but this is a major step forward.”

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Dept. spokesman Sgt. Alex Tipolt said that the announcement of the award was a positive move toward the construction of a new jail, but that the funding is conditional and the construction process will take additional time. He also said the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation has laid out specific steps for the counties receiving awards. According to a CDCR report, construction will be completed in accordance with the completion of goals or benchmarks set out by the department, and awards are contingent upon progress.

“This is a huge step forward for us into the actual construction of a new jail, but obviously, this is just the awards phase and there are still several things we need to do,” Tipolt said.
Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone said that overcrowding at the facility has been an issue for years, and the county is running out of options. He said the deterrent effect of jail time is slowly diminishing in the county, as potential criminals realize that they may not be sent to prison if they are convicted.

“We are letting a number of people back on the streets before their term is up, which in some cases is really not a good idea,” Firestone said. “Sometimes they’re really not nice people. And the word on the street is that if you get caught and convicted, you probably won’t have to do your time.”

Furthermore, Firestone said the construction of a new jail may not solve all of the county’s problems as easily as some think.

“The real question is, can we afford to operate this jail once we build it?” Firestone said. “This is going to be a real problem for us. We have very fierce budget problems before this comes along. Do we need it? Yes. Should we have it? Yes. Can we afford it? Question mark.”