Santa Clara County struggles to breathe life into mental health services for ex-inmates
The Santa Clara County Main Jail in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

    Santa Clara County supervisors are vowing to save a critically underfunded mental health program that often is a last resort for hundreds of former inmates in need of medical help.

    Community Awaiting Placement Supervision (CAPS) helps place former Santa Clara County inmates into mental health treatment programs. They are ordered, upon release, to receive outpatient counseling or be placed in transitional housing. From July 2019 to this July, 109 people were released from jail into the supervision of CAPS.

    Of those, only 16 made it through the full 90 days of the program in compliance and without being rearrested, according to Javier Aguirre, director of Reentry Services for the county. He explained the shortfalls of the program to the Board of Supervisors Sept. 1.

    “We had individuals who were just one week away from closing out the program but were unfortunately rearrested,” Aguirre said. “The majority are not successful because of a bench warrant, non-compliant, a court date, missed connecting with a probation officer or did not enroll or connect with treatment.”

    On average, a client waits 28 days for placement in the CAPS program after release, said Aguirre, though sometimes they are able to be placed earlier. This is an improvement from two to three years ago when wait times could be longer than 40 days for treatment, Aguirre said.

    Aguirre admitted CAPS’ success rate was less than ideal. His department suggested to supervisors they increase funding for staffing, which would be difficult now more than ever due to the county’s recent budget cuts. Extra staffing could provide more support and guidance for clients during the entirety of their program, he said.

    Supervisor Susan Ellenberg estimated staffing was at only 15% of what it should be but said she did not want to give up on the program.

    “If we continue staffing at its current levels, we will not see success,” Ellenberg said. “If we fail to adequately serve and monitor these clients, we put their’s and their community’s safety at risk.”

    Other recommendations included using providers outside county staff as a temporary solution while trying to staff permanently, Aguirre said.

    Ellenberg said she only sees two options: “We either eliminate the program that is the one good chance we have to turn things around for these clients or staff it properly to provide the level of service these clients need and deserve.”

    Ellenberg said she wants to see more information on how to pay for new positions, suggesting money may need to come from other areas of law enforcement.

    “If we really are committed to justice reform and the recommendations to the budget that suggest a decrease in funding in some of our law enforcement work, it has to be accompanied by increases in funding that are very much needed to make this transition successful,” Ellenberg said.

    Board President Cindy Chavez echoed Ellenberg’s comments.

    Chavez suggested perhaps the requirements for staffing CAPS shouldn’t be as restrictive as they are now. Lived experience, combined with something like a certificate in drug and alcohol counseling, could qualify someone for a position and help keep the program staffed.

    “(The current hiring process) impedes flexibility and it impedes our ability to get the most skilled person (in that job),” Chavez said.

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

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