After pushing for construction of a new county jail in downtown San Jose for years, Santa Clara County supervisors are now putting the project on hold and proposing a mental health facility instead.
When 2020 began, the tumultuous year became an unintended pilot program in reduced incarceration in the county.
With a third of the county’s jail population reduced to just under 2,100 inmates due to COVID-19, county supervisors revealed Tuesday they have suspended the process of building a new jail and are considering replacing it with a new mental health treatment facility.
“The focus of this new jail since its inception has been on medical services, mental health treatment and the programming needs of incarcerated individuals,” said Deputy County Executive Martha Wapenski during the supervisors meeting. “The project has never been about building more beds, rather it’s been focused on replacing antiquated housing with quality treatment space and housing geared toward behavioral health and reentry services.”
Jose Valle, a member of Silicon Valley De-Bug, an advocacy organization in San Jose, supported the move and said “reentry and rehabilitation needs to start the first day folks enter the jail.”
County supervisors voted unanimously in favor of a four-pronged approach to the new mental health center, including studying Los Angeles County’s decision to stop its own jail construction in favor of a similar facility. Officials will explore whether the county’s Behavioral Health staff is sufficient to run the proposed mental health facility, with a minimal amount of correctional officers.
Many activists applauded the move from putting people behind bars to providing much-needed social services.
“Please explore alternatives to incarceration,” said public commenter Megan Swift. “I ask that you not build a new jail, but focus on pretrial diversion services. Jails are not housing. Fund mental health and addiction programs that are not tied to incarceration. You have an opportunity to do something different.”
Others credited the pandemic as a sea change in the county’s thinking.
“While we support improving our current jails to make them more human and conducive to healing, this is a moment to reimagine and move away from mass incarceration and jails as our answers to community ailments,” said Sajid Khan, a public defender in San Jose.
County staff were directed by supervisors to stop requesting contract proposals for construction on the new jail, and wait until supervisors finalize the project’s new direction.
Supervisors have until Nov. 17 to receive a report on the county’s inmate population and where they are housed, as well as the level of need for outpatient and residential treatment programs.
“At its core, the new facility should center on care first, jail last,” said Dave Supervisor Cortese. “With a low jail population caused by COVID-19 prevention and the growing need for mental health services, the county has the opportunity to re-envision how inmates are treated while in custody and, more importantly, how they can be diverted from custody in the first place. ”