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Santa Clara County Considered Building a Mental Health Facility Instead of a New Jail. It Chose the Jail

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An illustration of a proposed new building in downtown San José.
A conceptual illustration of a proposed new Santa Clara County jail (in orange) in downtown San José. County supervisors voted last week to move forward with the project.  (Courtesy of Santa Clara County)

Santa Clara County moved forward last week with plans for a new jail, a move sharply criticized by opponents who for years have urged officials to use the funds for a mental health treatment center instead.

After more than three hours of heated public comment, the county Board of Supervisors in a 3-2 vote narrowly approved construction of the $390 million facility, while pledging to keep the treatment facility idea on the table.

The new 500-bed jail will be built in downtown San José on the former site of Main Jail South, which was demolished in 2020. The remaining Main Jail North facility, and at least part of the Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas, will also be torn down or vacated as part of the plan.

The decision ultimately came down to the county’s dire need for a new jail, said Supervisor Otto Lee, noting that its jail facilities were built decades ago, and are largely dilapidated.

“What a lot of people might not understand is that we actually do not have a humane carceral facility to house those in our county right now,” said Lee, pointing to the jail system's troubled history of abuse and neglect.

When first proposed in 2018, the idea for a new county jail was not expected to be so controversial.

And it largely wasn’t, until the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

The county board garnered media attention when supervisors voted unanimously that fall to halt jail construction and explore building a mental health care facility as an alternative.

In a survey of 800 registered voters in the county, commissioned last year by the board, only 10% of respondents said they wanted a new jail, while 34% said they supported the construction of a behavioral health facility, and another 34% favored some combination of the two.

“I think that beginning in the summer of 2020, we started experiencing another resurgence of attention to how our criminal legal system works, how many people we incarcerate, and really taking a serious look at how many of those folks would actually be better served in other environments,” said Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, who called for the postponement and joined Supervisor Cindy Chavez last week in opposing the jail plan.

Ellenberg is among a growing number of local leaders across the state pushing to increase access to public mental health resources.

The county does offer a range of resources for varying levels of mental health treatment, including two mobile crisis response teams and a limited number of beds in small treatment programs. But those services fall far short of meeting the growing need in this very large county, say mental health advocates.

“What we need, in fact, is an entire range of facilities,” Ellenberg said. “But opportunities to move — always thinking about the least restrictive environments to be able to move through a continuum of care. I'm interested in a range of facilities that are run by health care professionals … that are not overseen by the Department of Corrections.”

In recent years, a growing number of local leaders in California, from supervisors to district attorneys, have pushed to provide more mental health treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration. Among the highest-profile examples is Los Angeles County, home to the state’s largest jail system, which has transferred more than 7,000 people from jails into community-based mental health programs since 2017.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors also drew headlines last year when it voted against expanding the county’s jail system in favor of alternative treatment programs.

With a dwindling supply of public mental health resources available, jails have increasingly become the dumping grounds for people with serious mental illness who commit minor, nonviolent crimes. Nationally, roughly 20% of people in jails suffer from serious mental illness, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. ​​In California, that rate is even more stark: A whopping 31% of the state’s jail population in 2019 had an open mental health case, a more than 60% increase from a decade ago, California Health Policy Strategies reported.

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An estimated 25% of Santa Clara County’s roughly 2,400 inmates have a serious mental illness, Sheriff Laurie Smith told the San José Spotlight in an interview last fall. “I think the bottom line is that the jails have become the de facto mental health system,” she said.

Smith has since been accused by a grand jury of corruption and jail mismanagement for, among other things, allegedly failing to cooperate with an internal investigation into the treatment of an incarcerated person undergoing a psychiatric crisis, who suffered a severe head injury while being transported between jail facilities.

“It's not just in Santa Clara County. It's all over the state and all over California and all over the country,” said Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley, who specializes in cases involving people with mental illness. “The number of individuals coming into the criminal justice system who are mentally ill is increasing proportionately.”

Manley said he often tries to send people to treatment centers instead of jails, only to learn that no beds are available because of the county’s scarce treatment resources. And even when there is space, incarcerated people with mental illnesses often have trouble advocating for themselves.

“Mentally ill people often are kept in jails longer than someone else who commits the very same crime, who is not mentally ill,” he said. “That is because, you know, the mentally ill often can't communicate with their attorney. They don't know where they are.”

Supervisor Lee and other members of the board say they agree that more mental health resources are necessary, but argue the county can’t wait to build a new jail while it works on longer-term alternatives.

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“Main Jail North is not ADA-accessible, it has seismic problems, it lacks recreational programming spaces like classrooms. If the facility that we're talking about were not being built, we are actually prolonging the suffering, because [inmates] would then be stuck in the current facilities,” he said.

With the new facility, the county’s total jail cell count — currently about 4,000 — would be reduced by roughly half, according to county officials. That decrease, says Lee, would motivate the county to release more incarcerated people who don’t pose public safety risks, and put that money toward providing additional mental health care services.

“We are actually moving forward to end the suffering of these inhumane facilities that we now have in the county to move to a future of rehabilitation, of recovery, to focus on treatment,” he said.

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