Thursday, February 28, 2008

Too Many Jails/Not Enough Imagination

So here we are, as the Associated Press (AP) reports, with more people incarcerted per capita than ever before (one in 99), and we are still somehow talking about building more jails. Looked at in the microcosm of Santa Barbara County, it might make some sense to build a modest facility in North County (the place generating more felony arrests), to deal with a long-standing concern (mostly among law enforcement officials) that there is an over-crowding problem. But where does this ultimately lead us? You guessed it: further down the path toward a bankruptcy of money and good ideas. Sheriff Bill Brown is trying to raise at least $90 million dollars to build a new jail facility. I wonder if he, or anyone else, has asked what the impact of that money would be (or even half of it) were we to devote it to some of the neglected social services that don't have nearly the political power of a Sheriff. What about County Mental Health Services or, for that matter, the County Probation Department? Ask the Chief Probation Officer what could be done in terms of added personnel and community supervision if they had an additional $10 million in their budget. There are any number of agencies, departments and non-profits which are already doing well to combat the core problems leading to crime that can be combatted. The big three are: Mental Illness, Poverty and Substance Abuse. Why don't we support them in their effective and laudable efforts in crime prevention; and, more fundamentally, giving disadvantaged and wayward people a chance to succeed without resorting to crime?

The Pew report, cited in the AP article, was compiled by the Center on the State's Public Safety Performance Project, which is working directly with 13 states on developing programs to divert offenders from prison without jeopardizing public safety.

"For all the money spent on corrections today, there hasn't been a clear and convincing return for public safety," said the project's director, Adam Gelb.

I think the same might be true here in Santa Barbara. I encourage Sheriff Brown, and others in charge of our money, to put more thought into jail alternatives. Maybe we can do our part to show others that more people incarcerated is not the answer to the problem, but rather is the problem itself.

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