The discussion of a report on reducing the Santa Barbara County Main Jail inmate population as well as money spent on custody deputies’ overtime turned contentious between members of the Board of Supervisors and also the sheriff on June 1.  

Sheriff’s officials presented a complex 10-phase plan for reducing custody deputy overtime costs that involves analyzing security levels needed for inmates in custody and opening and closing jail units as necessary to accommodate those needs.

As an example, the Rolling Housing Reduction Plan would save $10,820 a day in overtime at Phase 7 of the 10-phase plan, which would translate to an annual savings of about $3.95 million.

Several public speakers told the board it was difficult if not impossible to understand, much less analyze, the plan between the time it was posted May 28 and the June 1 hearing, which followed a three-day weekend.

Police chiefs of Santa Maria, Guadalupe, Lompoc and Santa Barbara supported the plan, as well as opening the Northern Branch Jail as soon as possible. Supervisors generally seemed to support the plan as well.

Brown said keeping the jail population low means rehabilitating inmates and making them productive members of society who won’t return. He also listed the five things inmates need when they are released to accomplish that objective: a home, skills to provide them with a way to make a living, a job, help conquering their addictions and a way to manage their anger.

“We know what we need to do,” said 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart. “The question is how do we do it with the limited resources in the system we have today?”

Tensions subsequently arose over proposals to withhold either the $2.2 million contribution to the Northern Branch Jail operating fund or $1.95 million from the Sheriff’s Office overtime fund for a purpose that was never fully clarified but apparently would support diversion programs.

The first proposal was dropped from a motion by Hart because it appeared to lack majority support; the second proposal made in a separate motion by 1st District Supervisor Das Williams failed on a 2-3 vote, with only Williams and Hart voting in favor.

Williams said he would prefer to simply shut down half the Main Jail but admitted that wouldn’t happen, although he questioned the need to renovate as much of the facility as proposed.

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“This is a money pit, and it denies us the resources for effective public safety, not just denies us the resources for effective rehabilitation,” Williams said.

But 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann was reluctant to support withholding funds from the Sheriff’s Office budget.

“Plucking out $2 million and putting strings on it doesn’t seem to me adequate to what we’re trying to do or that it’s helpful considering the tension that it creates,” she said.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said withholding the funds smacked of defunding the police, as did Sheriff Bill Brown, who said cutting his budget by $2.2 million would have a significant impact on its operation and “force some changes that are pretty ugly.”

“This is really shooting from the hip on much of this,” Brown said. “This is a reckless action that’s being proposed.”

He implored the board to slow down and give some of his proposed changes a chance to work.

“We are in the midst of a great unknown right now,” Brown said, noting the county is poised to have the lowest jail population more than 10 years.

But he said there’s no way to know how the inmate population will change after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, although he believes it will increase due to a variety of factors, especially after the Northern Branch Jail opens, which is expected to take place this fall.

Although supervisors declined to divert funds from the Sheriff’s Office budget or jail operating funds, they unanimously approved the balance of Hart’s motion calling for the County Executive Office to reach out to the state for clarification of jail beds required by AB 900 and partner with a consultant to vet the sheriff’s plan for reducing custody deputy overtime costs and managing the jail population.

The motion also directed the sheriff to return with more information on a timeline for implementing the plan.