Santa Clara County considers sobering centers in lieu of jail

Santa Clara County leaders are calling it a first step to reducing the number of people in the county jail system. It’s place for non-violent drunk people to sober up instead of putting them behind bars.

Come September, what used to be an auditorium inside the Santa Clara County’s Reentry Resource Center will be transformed into the county's latest fix for public drunkenness.

“There will be a nursing station, an assessment station,” said Garry Herceg of the Santa Clara County Reentry Center. “There will be five recliners initially in here.”

It’s a temporary sobering center with recliners for up to five people who are badly intoxicated. Outside, trailers will be set up for bathrooms. The county sees it as a way to save money and time for officers who spend hours booking offenders in jail.

“Every time we house someone in the jail it can be up to $190 dollars a day,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez. “That's the Fairmont. Jails are really important places for people who are at risk to the community but maybe not a good place for someone who is drunk in public.”

The cost is $12 million funded largely by a state grant. It will be run by the county's behavioral health department. It’s part of a bigger plan for jail reform to keep mentally ill people and those suffering from drug and alcohol addictions out of jail. The jail has been under scrutiny after the beating death of inmate Michael Tyree, who was bipolar, by jail guards.

“Today for example there are over 100 offenders in jail and many of those, nearly 100 are mentally ill,” said Judge Stephen Manley of Santa Clara County Family Court. “They have served their sentences but have nowhere to live.”

The idea of separating drunks was tried before but it didn't work. Judge Manley said it was too similar to the jail system. This time, the station will have nurses and support staff to refer offenders to rehabilitation programs

“This is a first step,” said Manley. “We have a long way to go.”

Next year, the county plans to have a permanent “sobering” station at the back of the reentry building, Right now, it's used for storage but it will all be gutted to include showers, laundry services and food pantry to help 20 people.

“The system has been pretty broken and this is just one other way to patch the system up and still maintain a safe community,” said Chavez.

In January, the county plans to have mobile vans to meet law enforcement on the streets and pick up intoxicated people. The pilot program will start with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department.