As the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors reconvenes for its first meeting of the year, one topic it won’t address is the jail system.
The board was scheduled to hear recommendations for changing the jail system today. But at the request of county administration, supervisors won’t hear about any recommendations until Jan. 25. The recommendations were deferred once before by Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, who raised concerns last November. County officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“My hope is that there’s a more serious consideration of all the community engagement that has happened over the last year,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight, adding she’d like to see the report pay attention to statewide trends that are moving away from creating new jail facilities in favor of mental health and community-based services.
Ellenberg said she does not want to eliminate existing county jails.
A staff report introduced last November called for developing a comprehensive treatment plan for people involved in the criminal justice system and coming up with alternatives to incarceration. The report also proposed a new maximum-security facility for up to 500 inmates.
Anti-jail activists outraged by the jail proposal plan to deliver testimony at the Jan. 25 hearing. Jose Valle, a member of Silicon Valley De-Bug, said his organization is preparing to release a report that will highlight reasons to not build a new jail.
“As far as what the community wants, they have not expressed anything about wanting this new jail,” Valle told San José Spotlight. “I wish they would take a different approach and actually hear the people… what the folks inside (jail) want.”
In October 2020, the board explored the idea of building a mental health facility instead of a new jail following a dramatic reduction in the jail population due to COVID-19 concerns. Lawmakers backed away from this alternative last February after the county reported this would leave hundreds of inmates in deplorable living conditions. Santa Clara County is also under obligations imposed by a 2018 federal consent decree to improve the jail environment for inmates.
One overwhelming issue in the jail system is the large number of mentally ill inmates. The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees jail operations, recently estimated approximately 25% of inmates have a serious mental illness, and many end up waiting weeks or months for access to treatment beds at psychiatric facilities. The jail system is impacted by the shortage of psychiatric treatment beds in Santa Clara County, which only has roughly 18 beds per 100,000 residents— below the recommended state average of 21 per 100,000.
“There is no secure high-acuity long-term facility in our county at all,” Ellenberg said. “We have a shortage of facilities and services throughout the entire continuum of need.”
Leslie Zeiger, a volunteer organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice at Sacred Heart, said many people with mental illness experience their first mental health intervention while incarcerated.
“That’s a significant problem,” Zeiger told San José Spotlight, adding the county needs to address rehabilitation and alternatives to detaining people before trial, such as releasing individuals into the care of community-based organizations.