Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said Wednesday he is terminating the county’s agreement with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to house federal detainees, saying he needs the jail space to accommodate growing numbers of inmates with mental health issues.

“Since 2015, we have seen a 40 percent increase in open mental health cases in our jails,” Barnes said. “The number of mental health cases now reach almost 1,800 on any given day. Consequently, we must focus on enhancing our mental health services and expanding the number of beds available for individuals with mental health needs.”

Barnes said the sheriff’s department will be upgrading three housing modules in the Intake Release Center to accommodate inmates with mental-health needs. The department will also add cells and restrooms that meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The upgrades are expected to add about “500 behavioral health beds allowing for the security, care and treatment of male and female inmates,” he said.

Barnes said ending the agreement with ICE will help free up staffing and space in the jail system. The agreement had been set to expire in July 2020, but the county has the ability to end the pact early.

“Once formally terminated, ICE has 120 days to transfer the detainees to other facilities,” according to a sheriff’s statement. “Unfortunately, based on statutory language within SB 54, those individuals housed on behalf of ICE will most likely be transferred outside of California, separating them from family members who reside within this state.”

Barnes insisted the move “will not impact public safety.”

“OCSD will continue to work with ICE within the confines of SB 54 to ensure they are alerted to the release of serious and violent offenders within our custody who have ICE detainers,” according to the sheriff’s department.

The sheriff said the department will also close the James A. Musick jail in Irvine, saving the agency about $19.3 million. The savings will come from reduced overtime expenses, the cost of operations and liability insurance for the ICE contract, said Carrie Braun of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

But the sheriff cutting ties with ICE will permanently end a revenue stream the department counted on initially to get it through the Great Recession. The department receives $120 for every ICE detainee per bed per day from the federal government, which is an average of nearly $30.7 million annually.

California law now prevents the sheriff from striking a similar deal with ICE ever again, Braun noted.

“We’re going to have to work very hard to stay within our budget,” she said.

It’s unknown what will happen with the Musick facility. It could be razed, but that decision has not been made yet, Braun said.

Eventually, the sheriff will build 512- and 384-bed facilities at the Musick site, to be completed by the fall of 2022, she said.

Disability Rights California attorney Aaron Fischer said his organization has been monitoring Orange County’s Jails for the past several months and have raised multiple issues.

“They have a very challenged system in terms of treating people with serious mental illness,” Fischer said. “And you have a fast-increasing population of people with increasing mental health needs and that itself has to be addressed.”

Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Sheriffs, praised the plan as it addresses the union’s issue with forced overtime for deputies.

“It has not been as bad as it was eight months ago, but the forced overtime issue still exists,” Dominguez said.

Union leaders are hopeful the redeployment of deputies to the other jails will help reduce the reliance on overtime, he said, adding, “We’re going to keep a close eye on it.”

Barnes’ plan addresses some of the issues that have cropped up due to state mandates on prison overcrowding, which have led to the incarceration of previously convicted inmates in jails instead of prisons, Dominguez said.

“The jails are extremely dangerous and more than they were 10 or even 15 years ago,” Dominguez said. “The Musick facility was never intended to be a state prison, but that is what it has evolved into. I think the residents in Lake Forest and Irvine will be pleased that facility is being at least temporarily shuttered and all these state prison inmates will be housed in a more appropriate environment.”

Dominguez said deputies have been called on to be social workers, so the plan will address that issue, as well.

“The deputy sheriff should not be the one to provide direct mental health services, and it’s been that way for my entire career of 33 years in the sheriff’s department,” Dominguez said. “It looks to me like we’re finally taking a step to get these people the services they need.”

Lori K. Haley, a spokeswoman for ICE, released a statement saying the move to cancel the contract with the sheriff as of Aug. 1 would “negatively impact local ICE operations,” as well as having a “greater impact” on the detainees.

“Now, instead of being housed close to family members or local attorneys, ICE will have to depend on its national system of detention bed space to place those detainees in locations farther away, reducing the opportunities for in-person family visitation and attorney coordination.”

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Sameer Ahmed said the organization is “profoundly concerned about the fate of the immigration detainees in (the sheriff’s) custody, and what the future holds for them.”

He said Barnes “is wrong to suggest that all individuals must be transferred to other facilities. We demand that ICE release as many individuals as possible to ensure they remain close to their families, friends, communities, and attorneys. Access to counsel is a fundamental right, and transfers of detained individuals who are in the middle of legal proceedings far away from their lawyers undermine this right. We are committed to ensuring that these individuals have access to legal support and their due process rights are protected.”

Daisy Ramirez, the ACLU’s jails project coordinator for Southern California, agreed that the jails have become “de-facto mental health facilities.”

“We urge Sheriff Barnes to prioritize diversion programs to mitigate the entry and re-entry of people with mental health diagnoses and substance use disorders,” Ramirez said. “Locking up people with such conditions is counterproductive to their physical health and mental wellbeing. It is ineffective, costly, and harmful. If our shared goal is reducing recidivism, then we must permanently shut down the Musick facility and allocate savings to community-based programs.”

Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do assured residents that “public safety” is the county’s “number one priority.”

Do added, “I am committed to providing our sheriff’s department with all of the resources they need to keep our communities safe. We will continue to do everything we need to do to keep dangerous criminals off our streets.”

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