Santa Clara County grapples with how to build mental health facility in place of jail
Santa Clara County 's jail is pictured in this file photo. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Santa Clara County supervisors doubled down on their commitment to eliminate jail beds and create a new mental health facility to replace the recently-demolished Main Jail South in San Jose.

But they are discovering moving forward with the idea is complicated.

In October, supervisors decided to halt a decade-long plan to replace failing jail facilities and instead focus on addressing the behavioral health needs of county residents, a strategy that advocacy groups such as Silicon Valley De-Bug call “Care First, Jails Last.”

With the jail population down by one-third due to COVID-19 to just under 2,100 inmates, supervisors have argued this is a perfect opportunity to rethink the county’s history of incarceration and how it can divert residents from going to jail in the first place.

However, with contracting bids already in place to build a jail, the county is struggling with how to change course. With a unanimous vote, supervisors agreed Nov. 17 to continue steering clear of building a new jail and focus on studying how to develop a new mental health treatment facility in its stead.

Supervisor Dave Cortese warned against doing anything but starting from scratch on a new mental health treatment facility.

“I would highly recommend not trying to convert this bidding process to a new specification,” Cortese said. If the county only amended its current contracts, the process would end up messy, expensive and would still look like a jail, he said.

County Executive Jeff Smith said starting over with new requests for proposals (RFPs) could add several more years to the development process.

Meanwhile, some residents scorned the perceived lack of imagination from county staff and called again for a prohibition against building a new jail.

“Honestly, reading the report produced by the county executive’s office angered me,” said Charisse Domingo “The report still included a paragraph recommending moving forward with a jail. We do not want a jail, we want an inclusive process with different stakeholders centering the lived experience of our loved ones.”

“We want this process to be overseen by a different agency with a lens toward public health, racial justice and decarceration,” she added.

County Counsel James Williams said building a new mental health facility instead of a jail might not absolve the county of maintaining ADA compliance in its jails, following two lawsuits in 2018 alleging that inmates were kept in inhumane conditions and the jails lacked medical and mental health services.

Supervisor Mike Wasserman said the county should consider both plans to avoid further legal trouble.

“Let’s go forward with the jail plans we have in place and let’s also start considering a new mental health facility perhaps using the Elmwood facility,” Wasserman said, referring to the jail in Milpitas.

But the suggestion did not come to pass.

Instead, county attorneys will meet with the lawyers from the 2018 lawsuits to try and strike a deal that would allow the county to fulfill its legal obligations while not actually building a new jail.

Supervisors also asked county staff for a report comparing the costs of running a licensed mental health treatment center facility versus the replacement jail facility.

Supervisors also had to re-request many of the same things they asked for in October, including an analysis of current inmate housing needs and needs for psychotropic medication, as well as how many inmates would still need to be housed in a traditional jail.

However, county staff only returned with eight pages of what some thought of as milquetoast analysis that ultimately strayed from the mental health treatment center idea.

“For me, this is the last chance to say … (we should) not have additional cell capacity, and not invest in it. That’s my priority,” Cortese said.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] and follow her at @MadelynGReese

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