The Santa Barbara Grand Jury Report on Homeless Mentally Ill Indigent Recidivism, which was released on May 26, documents the crisis posed by homeless mentally ill persons cycling through the infamous revolving door at a great cost to the county. This crisis was predictable, given:

» The lack of effective treatment options in Santa Barbara County for people experiencing a psychiatric crisis and/or self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and particularly the lack of acute hospital beds, intensive residential treatment beds, and intensive case management.

» The fact that, on most days, there are NO psychiatric hospital beds and NO intensive residential treatment beds available in Santa Barbara, despite the hundreds in critical need of one or both of these, who are sitting instead in jail, prison or on the streets.

» The privatization of jail mental health services. (Families ACT! took a stand against this decision by the county Board of Supervisors almost two years ago. Click here for a New York Times report on the track record of the county contractor, Prison Health Services.

Before PHS was contracted to do so, the county Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services had a Memorandum of Understanding with the Sheriff’s Department to provide mental health services in the jail, and was doing an excellent job of it.

It is a dangerous precedent to relegate prison services to the private sector, especially at a time when individuals who are not essentially criminals are being confined against their will — by default — in an environment designed to punish, not heal. This gives the private corporation a stake in perpetuating a system that is cruel and unjust.

Families ACT! concurs with the Blue Ribbon Commission’s conclusions that “incarceration is neither an effective treatment for mental illness nor cost effective.”

“Crime in California 2009 Advance Release,” a report released by the state Attorney General’s Office, documents a dramatic decline in property crimes and steady decrease in violent crimes since the early 1990s, and yet our County Jail and our state prisons are dangerously crowded. Who, then, is filling our jails and prisons? The answer is “low-level offenders”: those with untreated mental health and substance-use disorders who contribute to our 75 percent recidivism rate as they cycle in and out of the jail and prisons, most often on charges related to drug or alcohol abuse and often on minor probation or parole violations.

These facts attest to the failure of our policies to address mental illness and its often concomitant substance use in a compassionate, efficient and cost-effective manner.

The crisis posed by the revolving-door syndrome, and the cost associated with it, will only escalate dramatically, if emergency measures are not taken now to begin reallocating funding from our criminal justice system to acute, intensive transitional treatment and case management to prevent more persons with mental health, substance-use or co-occurring disorders from falling into homelessness and facing premature death due to suicide, overdose or neglect.

We concur with the Grand Jury that:

» “The cost of jailing and tending to the medical needs of these individuals on an ad hoc, recurring basis is greater than the cost of a planned and sustained effort that addresses their problems at the outset.”

» “Housing alone doesn’t help if those in need can’t receive treatment and be stabilized enough to succeed.”

The following conditions need to be remedied ASAP:

» Inadequate mental health screening during booking

» No comprehensive treatment or case-management follow-up

» No licensed treatment beds for the mentally ill

» Inadequate discharge planning

Families ACT! is a local grassroots organization devoted to finding alternatives to incarceration for people with mental health and substance use disorders. Families ACT! took the initiative to convene a Task Force on Co-Occurring Disorders, bringing a wide variety of stakeholders together in a nonpolitical, collaborative forum to assess the status quo, address the critical gap in mental health and substance-use disorders and explore options for redressing these gaps. Our final report includes recommendations for reallocating funding from the criminal justice system to sustainable programs designed to help people with co-occurring disorders recover their well being and find employment or volunteer positions in social enterprises.

Click here for more information on Families ACT!, or call 805.637.1339.

— Suzanne Riordan is executive director of Families ACT!.