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Jail Taxi Hits the Skids

Funding for the Free Ride Service Is Drying Up


Thursday, October 24, 2013

For most people, the jail ride program goes unseen, occurring only in the dark of night. Peter Marin, one of its leaders, wants to bring it to light. Since Marin’s organization, the Committee for Social Justice (CSJ), took over the program a few years ago, a confluence of factors ​— ​an increased jail population, a consequentially busier jail staff, and tough economic times ​— ​have conspired to bring major change.

The ride service provides Santa Barbara County Jail inmates who are released late at night or early in the morning with a free taxi to the Salvation Army, the Rescue Mission, the downtown transit center, St. Athanasius Orthodox Church in Isla Vista, or to Carpinteria. As it stands now, CSJ reimburses the cab company ​— ​RockStar Transportation ​— ​through its relatively small cache of private donations. But as the number of people getting rides is increasing at the same time that one of CSJ’s main donors is demanding that the government shoulder the ride costs, the program is in jeopardy, Marin said. Without help, he said he doesn’t see it lasting past winter. “We can’t keep doing this indefinitely, and we can’t stop because then there’ll be no rides,” Marin said. “I’m personally stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

<b>Without Wheels:</b>  When arrestees are released from County Jail, they’re often left stranded miles from the nearest ride.
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman (file)

Without Wheels: When arrestees are released from County Jail, they’re often left stranded miles from the nearest ride.

Chief Deputy Lazaro Salinas, who supervises the jail’s custody operations, said that staff members are aware of people’s problems with late releases, but the way the system works now, they can’t always be avoided. “We’re cognizant of some of the issues involved in releasing people late at night,” Salinas said, citing safety concerns given the darkness and the seven-mile trek from the jail into town. Still, he said, “We’re up against the clock and judges’ orders.”

The release roster gets made in the wee hours of the morning, Salinas said, but the release process comes to a halt for several hours while the jail staff transports inmates to court. Once the transportation dwindles down, Salinas said, staff can refocus its attention on releases, and as a result, the majority of inmates leave during the day, when the buses ​— ​for which indigent releasees can get vouchers ​— ​run. The late releases, he said, can usually be chalked up to two scenarios: inmates whose North County–based court cases result in a same-day release order, and inmates who are admitted for public intoxication and DUIs.

The former, he said, typically involves inmates getting driven back down to the jail around 6:30 p.m., after which their release paperwork gets sent through the pipeline, a process that can take several hours ​— ​not always before the buses stop around 11 p.m. ​— ​but before the midnight deadline. In the cases of the latter, Salinas said the jail’s policy mandates holding people for 8 to 12 hours until they sober up; for people admitted in the afternoon, that can result in an after-hours release. Most of the people in those situations, Salinas said, ask to be released as soon as their hold expires, no matter the time of night.

From January through April of this year, Salinas said an average of nine people per day were released between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. An average of two people out of those nine ended up using the CSJ ride program, Marin estimated. So with anywhere from 50 to 75 rides per month ​— ​a number Marin said has skewed toward the higher side in recent months ​— ​at a cost of $20 to $30 per trip, Marin said the program requires at least $12,000 a year to survive.

Since CSJ started the program in 2010, it has been supported by two private donors ​— ​both of whom wish to remain anonymous and one of whom no longer wants to contribute ​— ​and grant money from the Fund for Santa Barbara. With no way to track which riders are truly indigent, Marin said he would make a “wild guess” that about one-third of those given the free rides don’t really need them. But the need for the program is so obvious, he said ​— ​especially in the winter and for women traveling alone and for the mentally ill ​— ​that it’s time for the government entities, who, aside from a onetime contribution made by Supervisor Doreen Farr in 2011, have never allocated money for the program, to step up to the plate.

Last week, Marin submitted a proposal through the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H). Jeff Shaffer, the group’s coordinator, said C3H can work to get government eyes on the funding need, although by when remains unclear. Using the $12,000/year figure, Marin is asking that the county contribute $6,000 a year, supplemented by $3,000 from City of Santa Barbara and $1,500 each from Goleta and Carpinteria. A system to monitor who truly needs the taxi services would further reduce costs and could keep CSJ going for a while, Marin said, noting that CSJ has been in talks with the Sheriff’s Department about such a system.

“There are a lot of moving parts to this,” he added. “It’s trying to make sure we don’t create more of a problem than we are trying to solve.”

Changing the release hours would be tricky, Sheriff Bill Brown said, requiring a change in how courts order releases, and it could be “complicated” to reformat the jail’s operational structure. “There are a lot of moving parts to this,” he added. “It’s trying to make sure we don’t create more of a problem than we are trying to solve.” Brown added that there isn’t any state or federal grant money that could cover such a program and that pooling inmates’ commissary funds to pay for the program would leech money from the commissary-funded substance-abuse treatment program. But by the time the new North County jail is built ​— ​projected for 2018 ​— ​he wants to have solutions in place, Brown said.

Goleta Mayor Roger Aceves said that the program is “critical” and that the City Council would “certainly consider it and see if there is funding available.” County Supervisor Salud Carbajal seconded that call for examination and said several questions need to be answered. “Is more funding the solution?” he asked. “Is it really rearranging our policy of release?” Steve Lavagnino, the county’s 5th District supervisor, said that taxpayers might balk at being asked to pay for released inmates’ transportation, but that the sum wasn’t exorbitant and the inmates’ safety is important.

In the meantime, Salinas said the jail is in talks to partner with Lights On, an Orange County–based Catholic organization that would park an RV outside the jail several nights a week, offering releasees coffee, company, and shelter until the buses come in the morning. While he lauded the possibility of Lights On, Marin said he’s focusing his efforts on keeping the ride program afloat: “We’re the only game in town, and we need money. The rest is just pie-in-the-sky stuff.”

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