By Jana Kadah, Bay City News Foundation

In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Board of  Supervisors reinforced its commitment to build a new mental health facility instead of a new jail, but the path will not be easy. 

In October, the board voted to halt reconstruction plans on the now-demolished Main Jail South and instead replace jail cells by focusing on mental health needs of residents.

Supervisors noted that with jail populations down by one-third to about 2,000 inmates in the county, it was the perfect time to reimagine how the county deals with crime and rehabilitation.

Supervisor Dave Cortese, who authored the initiative, argued that there is no longer “a need for Main Jail South,” because most of the inmates in Santa Clara County are not high-risk.

County Executive Jeff Smith agreed and said the county could even continue to decrease the inmate population.

But changing the nearly decade-long plan of rebuilding a jail to now constructing a mental health facility becomes complicated and potentially costly because there are already bids in place—and if the county were to let those bids expire, the mental health facility could take an additional four years to just start construction, Smith warned. 

So instead, the board agreed to work with bidders to reinvent the wheel and come up with a new “outcome-oriented design to ensure no [jail] re-entry,” Board President Supervisor Cindy Chavez said. 

But even if it awarded a bid and found the perfect design for the proposed mental health facility, the county is legally required to build a new jail. The requirement comes after two 2018 lawsuits that alleged a lack of mental health and medical services and callous conditions in county jails.

“We need a new mental health facility and we need a new jail,” Supervisor Mike Wasserman said. “We have the (Americans with Disabilities Act) issues that are enormous, we have the consent decree and we have a federal order to construct a new jail … so let’s move forward with the jail.” 

Wasserman suggested that the county change Elmwood Correctional Facility—which is not up to ADA standards—from a men’s jail to a mental health facility and move forward with building the new Main Jail South to fulfill both needs.

However, the board directed county counsel to try to reach an agreement with the 2018 lawsuit lawyers so that the county could fulfill its legal obligations without constructing a new jail. 

Supervisors hope to have a plan for the facility’s construction by September 2021.

In the meantime, the board requested that county staff do a cost-analysis of constructing a new mental health-oriented jail facility versus running a licensed mental health treatment center.

The board also asked staff to come back with a report outlining how many inmates need mental health services, medication and housing, and a forecast of future inmate populations that require housing in a traditional jail—reports that were requested in October but failed to materialize as supervisors expected.

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