Dozens of supporters gathered outside the county administration building in Santa Barbara on Tuesday with one message for the Board of Supervisors meeting several floors above: Stop the revolving door of the mentally ill into Santa Barbara County’s jails.
“We’re ready to go now; we have ideas,” said Suzanne Riordan, executive director of Families ACT!, the nonprofit group hosting the press conference.
The group focuses on supporting families of people with mental illness and substance abuse issues, and recently released an in-depth report outlining the steps it believes the county should take to address that revolving door. Scroll down to read a copy of the full report.
During their meeting Tuesday, the supervisors tackled two items related to that revolving door.
It’s an issue that has long plagued the county and overlaps multiple departments, including the Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services, the Sheriff’s Department and the court system.
But law enforcement officials, often the de facto responders to mentally ill people in crisis, are now facing an additional challenge. An influx of state prisoners are serving their sentences in county jail because of Assembly Bill 109, the public safety realignment bill aimed at reducing overcrowding, costs and recidivism in state prisons. Under the law, more convicted criminals are allowed to serve their sentences in county jails rather than be sent to state prisons.
On top of that, the county ADMHS announced it has a $3.3 million budget gap and is unsure where the money will come from to fill it. But recently, the Board of Supervisors has shown it may be willing to take on the challenges of the county’s struggling mental-health system.
Also Tuesday, Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray expressed frustration about why mentally ill people, including the homeless, continue to end up in jail.
“Everybody agrees it’s better to put folks into a housing element with supportive services if they are mentally ill,” Gray said to applause from those in the board room. “What can we do to move this? Everybody agrees but we’re not going anywhere.”
Numerous groups attempt to deal with the overlapping issues related to the mentally ill and incarceration, but more effort is needed to bring those groups together and focus efforts, County CEO Chandra Wallar responded
County staff authored a cost analysis stating that the cost to incarcerate a homeless person with mental illness is 25 percent higher than providing that person services such as housing and treatment.
But some at Tuesday’s meeting took issue with those numbers. Mike Foley, co-executive director of Bringing Our Community Home, said the report’s numbers for treatment were too high and the costs of incarceration too low.
Court and attorney costs and emergency room and ambulances expenses weren’t included in any of the estimates, he said, adding, “Those all have to do with incarceration.”
Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr said the county’s report didn’t go far enough.
“We need a lot more analysis,” she said. “To me, 25 percent is a whole lot of money to be spending” to have people not be rehabilitated.
Farr recommended that the supervisors and staff read the Families ACT! report and come back with further steps.
“We need an action plan,” she said.
If a North County jail is built in the future, a portion of the space that opens up could be used to help treat the mentally ill, Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said.
First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal called that idea “pragmatic,” adding that the best thing is not put mentally ill people in jail in the first place.
“The best thing is to try to find a way to not have our mentally ill go to jail,” he said to applause.
Earlier in the meeting, the supervisors heard from officials with Corizon, the private company in charge of inmate medical and mental health care.
After a presentation from Leigh Anne Bradley of Corizon saying the company is doing more with less, many said they weren’t happy about the quality of health care inmates are receiving.
Nancy Speer spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, recounting her 22-year-old son’s year-long stay in jail, where he attempted suicide twice. She said her son was not given the treatment he needed, and she questioned Corizon’s processes.
A perceived lack of oversight also was raised. A private company may save costs, several speakers said, but should have an independent commission watching over complaints that surface.
The supervisors were also scheduled to hear about the impact of AB 109 on the first three months of the year, but will pick up that item at their May 8 meeting.