Faced with a growing percentage of jail inmates with mental health issues, the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday directed officials from a wide array of its criminal justice and health agencies to develop recommendations for creating secure but “non-correctional” treatment facilities for inmates with the greatest need for care.

The motion, which was authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn, also called on staff to identify available and potential revenue sources for building such facilities and operating them. Staff were directed to report back to the board within 90 days.

Board members unanimously approved the motion, but voted down a strikingly similar proposal from Supervisor Kathryn Barger, with some members suggesting her proposal seemed to be suggesting a large, single locked facility similar to one that the board rejected three years ago.

Barger said that was not the intent of her motion, noting that it called for a review of secure but “non-custodial” treatment facilities.

“My goal was not to revive what we abandoned (in 2019),” Barger said. She added, “It does not say `build a jail.”’

Barger said the board has a moral and constitutional obligation to provide appropriate and adequate care for mentally ill people jailed in the county, especially since the operation of the county’s jail system is still under the supervision of a Department of Justice consent decree.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she could not support Barger’s motion, because she felt it had “broad wording” that might lead to a single large facility akin to a mental health jail. But she said the alternate motion by Solis and Hahn “really looks for facilities in different places.”

The county has been working to divert more inmates with less-severe mental illness out of the jail system and into treatment, however, the percent of inmates in need of treatment has grown dramatically due to a lack of space to place them. Timothy Belavich, the county Department of Health Services’ director of Correctional Health Services, said about 7,000 people in the system currently need mental health services — roughly half of the jail population.

The struggle has been with inmates who have the most severe illness, or those in need of treatment who are charged with serious crimes, making them ineligible for diversion to more open, community-based treatment centers.

But the idea of developing “secure” centers has drawn the ire of some activists who have long called for more diversion into open centers. Some advocates spoke to the board and others rallied outside, suggesting the county has failed to direct more funding toward the Office of Diversion and Reentry to prevent inmates in need of care from being jailed in the first place.

“It’s disappointing, but more importantly the implications are deadly for the community,” Lex Steppling, director of campaigns and policy for Dignity & Power Now, said in a statement opposing the county’s actions. “Their failures to support ODR expansion is one example. We know that they understand what needs to be done. but we don’t know why they continue to push for something different.”

Supervisor Holly Mitchell said she has been pushing for increased funding for ODR, but it has thus far failed to gain support among the rest of her colleagues. Mitchell supported the Solis-Hahn motion for another report on developing secure facilities for the inmates most in need and who don’t qualify for diversion, but said more attention needs to be paid to community facilities for inmates who do qualify.

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