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County Jail Mental Health
updated: Oct 30, 2013, 10:19 AM
By Glen Mowrer
Gov. Jerry Brown's grandstand move to not reduce California's prison population has been rejected,
again, by the U.S. Supreme Court, and so the state is again facing the need to reduce its number of
Let's be clear: the reduction ordered is not a big one. It is to cut the inmate population to no more than
38 percent over designed capacity.
An order allowing the crowding - nearly 40 percent more into a prison than it was built to hold - is
not a bleeding heart liberal decision, especially considering the makeup of the current Supreme Court.
At the same time, the county of Santa Barbara continues to fight an internal battle between the forces
wanting to expand the local jail and those opposed to such expense. The local jail is already under court
order to reduce its overcrowding.
On first blush, this seems another simple tug of war between "law and order" forces and "the soft on
crime" contingent. Locally and statewide, however, the unaddressed issue that has been dodged for
decades is the refusal of the county and state to fund mental health care facilities. Grand Jury and other
reports have pointed this out over many years. Instead, we in Santa Barbara have engaged in the almost
mythic pursuit of the "North County jail."
It is estimated that about 30 to 50 percent of incarcerated inmates have mental health problems.
Locally, Sheriff Bill Brown says about 29 percent of County Jail inmates "use" mental health services. But
no one should believe they are being "treated" by this process. Therapeutic care requires open-ended
timelines, caregiver access 24/7 and the ability to properly medicate and otherwise address the issues
of the patient. In jail, they are controlled until they go to court and are released or sentenced. After that,
they are without any care.
The obstinacy on the part of the county (and state) in refusing to expand non-jail mental health services
has failed us all.
For half a century, the county has limited its locked-care intervention and treatment for local residents
to the Psychiatric Health Facility which cannot exceed 16 beds. This means this PHF is full all of the
time, and almost always it is full of the most tractable patients. People with more difficult needs are sent
Should the county take the present opportunity to redesignate all or part of the proposed "North County
jail" as a locked care psychiatric facility outside the control of the sheriff and under the direction of a
medical team, substantial portions of the present jail population would almost certainly be removed
from that facility, creating space for state prisoners or others deserving of jail time. Creation of a mixed
locked care and open treatment psychiatric clinic would dramatically refocus our community on human
needs and would almost certainly be cheaper to operate over time.
Instead of building another expensive-to-construct and expensive-to-staff failed monument to
punishment and vengeance, we have the opportunity to break out and offer a safer and healthier
community by expanding mental health services in our county.
And this lesson is true for the state. Gov. Brown should be reconsidering California's ill-conceived long-
ago decision to destroy locked care facilities in California in light of the directly consequential
subsequent increase in state prison and jail populations.
Maybe this is the sort of alternative that the federal courts would go for.
The author lives in Santa Barbara.
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