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Central Coast law enforcement blame an increase in crime on a rule aimed at decreasing jail populations amid COVID-19 

Clarification: A previous story inaccurately stated that the Sheriff's Office denied a Public Records Act request specifically for the data Sheriff Brown presented on Dec. 1. The Sheriff's Office denied New Times' request for 2020 crime statistics, stating that data won't be available until February 2021.

Reported crimes are up this year in both San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, and a preliminary FBI report shows that the same is true for homicides throughout the U.S.

click to enlarge COVID TINDERBOX While the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office says relaxed bail rules aimed at decreasing jail and prison populations are leading to an increase in serious crime, inmate advocates say COVID-19 is the bigger safety risk. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • COVID TINDERBOX While the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office says relaxed bail rules aimed at decreasing jail and prison populations are leading to an increase in serious crime, inmate advocates say COVID-19 is the bigger safety risk.

While many officials say it's too early to tell what might be causing the spike and that it's likely multifaceted, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office is largely pointing to emergency orders aimed at decreasing jail and prison populations amid the pandemic. Those orders were an effort to prevent the mass COVID-19 outbreaks among both inmates and staff that have been all too common throughout the nation since March.

In SLO County from January to October of this year, reports of serious crimes—homicides, rapes, robberies, domestic violence, burglary, aggravated assaults, larceny and motor vehicle theft, and arson—jumped by about 20 percent compared to the same time last year. While there were about 1,140 of these crimes reported to the Sheriff's Office from January to October last year, about 1,370 were reported this year.

Still, Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer Tony Cipolla said crime statistics always vary from year to year and it can be difficult to say why.

"It's reasonable to assume because of the general unease, tension, and anxiety associated with a lockdown, that there would be an increase in crimes," he wrote to New Times, "as well as the fact that county jails all over the state have early released thousands of inmates back into our communities."

In Santa Barbara County so far this year, Sheriff Bill Brown said that reports of the most serious violent crimes are trending 10 percent higher than the immediately preceding three-year average in areas served by the Sheriff's Office.

Reports of arson are trending 41 percent higher, reported robberies are up by 30 percent, and reports of forcible rape are trending upward by 14 percent, according to Brown, who presented highlights of the county's latest crime statistics at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Dec. 1.

"We're also seeing a 23 percent increase in property crimes," Brown said at the meeting, "and rural crimes especially have spiked 52 percent over the three-year average, again since the pandemic."

And that, he said, is just in areas that fall within the jurisdiction of the Sheriff's Office, including all unincorporated areas of the county and the cities of Solvang, Buellton, Carpinteria, and Goleta. The rates only continue to rise when you throw in the cities of Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, Brown said.

In April, the Judicial Council of California adopted a statewide emergency bail schedule that set bail at $0 for most people accused—but not yet tried—of misdemeanors and low-level felonies. Though the Judicial Council rescinded its order this summer as the state started to reopen, courts in a number of counties, including both Santa Barbara and SLO, extended their "zero bail" schedules locally.

Between Santa Barbara and SLO counties, hundreds of inmates awaiting trial in jails were released because of zero bail orders, and hundreds more arrestees have been released after initial booking since.

"So people who would have normally been held on bail are being released back into the public," Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer Raquel Zick said.

In Santa Barbara County, Zick said a "significant number" of those who have been arrested for crimes, booked, and then released on zero bail have been caught reoffending, though Zick couldn't say exactly how many.

In SLO County since the zero bail schedule went into effect in April, Sheriff's Office spokesperson Cipolla said that roughly 450 people who would normally await trial in jail or have to pay bail have been released free of charge. That, Cipolla said, includes both inmates who were initially released when the schedule went into effect and those who have been arrested, booked, and released on zero bail since.

From April to August, the Sheriff's Office recorded 59 instances in which people released on zero bail reoffended. Now, because of some work between the Sheriff's Office, local courts, District Attorney Dan Dow, and other law enforcement agencies in the area, Cipolla said a person who reoffends while out on zero bail is no longer eligible for future zero bail in SLO County.

"Since then," Cipolla wrote in an email to New Times, "the numbers [of reoffenders] have dropped significantly."

But Lea Villegas, chief trial deputy with the Santa Barbara County Offices of the Public Defender, said she has yet to see any hard data supporting Sheriff Brown's assertion that crime has increased dramatically during the pandemic, let alone connecting such an increase to zero bail.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office denied New Times’ Public Records Act request to see the county’s crime statistics from 2020, saying that data won’t be completed and made available to the public until February 2021. Sheriff Brown wasn’t available to expand on the data he presented on Dec. 1 before New Times' press time. 

"While we don't know for certain whether there has been a surge in crime in this county, we do know for certain that there has been a surge in COVID-19 transmissions, hospitalizations, and deaths," Villegas wrote in an email to New Times. "We cannot forget that we are still in the middle of a pandemic. Public health is public safety. Right now, the most important data point that should be driving the public safety discussion is not how many cars have been burglarized, but rather how many lives have been saved."

Kim Shean, deputy chief of Adult Services in Santa Barbara County's Probation Department, helps to facilitate a relatively new program that allows people facing criminal charges to leave jail while awaiting trial without paying bail. From July 2019 to July of this year, Shean said 574 people entered the pretrial supervision program, and 339 were successful, meaning they showed up at all their court hearings and did not reoffend.

While that would suggest a majority of people awaiting trial do not reoffend, Shean said there are still dangerous people being released on zero bail. In those cases, Shean said law enforcement officers can request bail enhancement from a judge, which, if granted, could significantly increase a person's bail amount despite the zero bail schedule.

"So that is an opportunity that's there that can be used throughout any county in California," she said, "and that appears to be underutilized here locally."

Regardless, inmate advocates and supporters of the zero bail schedule say that decreasing prison and jail populations is the only truly effective way to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks that impact not only inmates, but their communities.

Like many jails throughout the nation, the Santa Barbara County Jail has a long history of being overcrowded to the point that some inmates have been left without beds. Aaron Fischer is an attorney with Disability Rights California, and he's representing several current and former Santa Barbara County Jail inmates in a class action lawsuit regarding alleged unsafe conditions at the jail.

Though Fischer said the Sheriff's Office is working hard to keep coronavirus rates down in the jail through strict hygiene protocols and aggressive surveillance testing of inmates and staff, it's impossible for those measures to be effective when inmates have little ability to physically distance from each other or isolate when sick.

Jails and prisons, he said, have proven to be tinderboxes for mass COVID-19 outbreaks, and locally such facilities are responsible for thousands of cases and a few deaths. Jails, which largely hold people who haven't even been convicted of crimes yet, in both SLO and Santa Barbara counties have had multiple outbreaks among staff and inmates, as have the California Men's Colony and the Federal Correctional Institution of Lompoc, which had had more than 1,038 positive cases of COVID-19 within its facility alone as of Dec. 22.

"It has never been more dangerous for a person to be in a crowded jail with poor ventilation than it is right now," Fischer said.

But it's not just inmates who are impacted by these outbreaks. There's a steady flow of people entering and leaving jails every day—people being booked into custody or released, family and friends visiting, staff coming and going. When inmates and staff become seriously ill, Fischer said they take up the already limited ICU beds and hospital staff and time.

"An outbreak inside the jail puts the community at risk," he said, later adding, "Releasing people two or three or even eight months before their sentence is up, with good discharge planning, is not going to create extreme public safety risk. Keeping larger numbers of people in crowded jails will." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@newtimesslo.com.

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