Prison Diversion Programs and Criminal Justice Reforms Featured at Community Forum | Local news
The head of the Santa Barbara County Probation Department and the Public Defender spoke about reducing incarceration and investing in diversion programs and community prevention programs during a thoughtful panel discussion last week.
The focus is on reforms as the county prepares to open the new North Branch jail near Santa Maria and decides how to rehabilitate or rebuild parts of the aging main jail near Santa Barbara.
The state realignment, which has resulted in more people serving sentences in local prisons and probation programs rather than state prisons, “allowed us to look at local systems and begin to consider which we wanted to improve, “probation chief Tanja Heitman told Wednesday’s forum.
In the 10 years since the realignment was implemented, the county has developed a “robust pre-trial program” with a continuum of release options, including unsupervised, supervised and GPS follow-up, has Heitman said, and re-entry / exit planning for those leaving custody. .
âThe reality is that the vast majority of people in prison will return to our local community,â she said. âThey will likely get credit for time in custody, be placed on probation, serve a sentence of one year or less in the county jail, and then be released and reintegrate into our community, so I think it’s important that we kept that in mind. â
About 71% of those currently incarcerated in the Santa Barbara County Jail are not convicted, which means they have not been convicted or pleaded guilty, or have been convicted but not yet convicted by a judge.
Of the Santa Barbara County criminal cases that ended in sentence in 2019 and 2020, 85% of them had a probation sentence; 8% were sentenced to prison; and 6% of them were sentenced to state prison.
Public Defender Tracy Macuga spoke about her department’s âholistic advocacyâ approach, which examines each client to understand the underlying issues that prompted them to enter the criminal justice system.
âWe have to take every human being one person at a time and solve them and help them for their unique ecosystems, so that’s what holistic defense is at the heart of,â she said.
The role of the public defender’s office is to ensure that clients receive the best possible representation, Macuga said, “and to preserve human dignity in a system that sometimes robs them of it.”
Its staff also help connect clients with social services and community resources.
“We don’t have a choice as to who’s charged, who’s in jail, and we react to all of these things,” Deputy Public Defender La Mer Kyle-Griffiths said.
She also said that most of those convicted had pleaded guilty. Incarceration and delays in the court process are pushing these statistics, as people can plead guilty to lower a charge, to be released immediately or to get a lower sentence or probation, she said.
The District Attorney’s Office data dashboard shows that about 68% of indicted cases in 2019 and 2020 ended in a guilty plea for at least one of the indicted offenses, or a less serious offense, and 30, 5% of the cases charged were closed.
On Wednesday, the day of the panel’s event, there were 708 people in the main prison, Macuga said. Among them, 553 not convicted and 28 incompetent to stand trial for mental illness, she said.
âRecent research has revealed that if there was a decrease in the available capacity of psychiatric beds, it was associated with an immediate reciprocal growth in the local prison population. of care for our mentally ill, âHeitman said.
The sheriff’s department dashboard shows the large number of people in detention for alcohol or drug-related issues, Macuga noted.
âThese are public health issues,â she said. “These people are in desperate need of treatment, not incarceration.”
Other panelists included Pastor Jerry Menchaca of New Beginning Community Church and Santa Barbara City College Academic Advisor Laura Pina, who spoke about the mental, physical and financial consequences of incarceration for those in detention and their families.
âA lot of times we are stigmatized, isolated, traumatized by things that, as she mentioned, are beyond our control,â said Pina, who said she was married to someone currently in prison.
Menchaca said detention for minor offenses had devastating consequences.
âTwo to three weeks is extremely tough for a family living paycheck to paycheck,â Menchaca said.
“And it’s always people of color, minorities who don’t have the financial support to get out of jail,” he told moderator George Eskin, a retired Superior Court judge. âIf you have the money, judge, you don’t even have to go to court – you can send your lawyer. “
Eskin said the courts found it unconstitutional to keep someone in jail simply because they couldn’t pay bail, and that he believes judges should revise the release schedule accordingly so that more people can participate in pre-trial supervised release programs.
âI think we need to change our language and the way we talk about the community we serve,â Macuga said. “These are human beings who are incarcerated.”
The roundtable was presented by the League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara and CLUE, Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice.