Santa Clara County supervisors opt for mental health treatment center instead of new jail

Construction for the new 535-bed Main Jail South project in Downtown San Jose was suspended on Tuesday, and a mental health center may take its place instead, according to county supervisors.

During its Tuesday meeting, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to halt the Main Jail South replacement project and potentially build a mental health treatment center to provide care for mentally ill inmates in the county's jail system.

The new center would be overseen by the Public Health Department and staffed by the county's Behavioral Health Department.

"At its core, the new facility should center on care first, jail last," Supervisor Dave Cortese said.

Cortese first requested this shift in August 2020, after an administrative report detailing the progress and plans for the $390 million replacement of the Main Jail South was discussed at board meeting.

"With a low jail population caused by COVID-19 prevention and the growing need for mental health services, the County has the opportunity to re-envision how inmates are treated while in custody and, more importantly, how they can be diverted from custody in the first place," Cortese said. He noted that since March, the county prison population dropped more than a third, to about 2,100 people in jail, to reduce crowding and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and still didn't lead to a spike in crime rates. That, along with pushes from reform activists encouraged county leaders to shift support this unique proposal. Alternate Public Defender Sajid Khan, who has also been a staunch reform advocate in the South Bay was one of many voices during public comment in support of this initiative.

"What we've learned is that people's paths to rehabilitation and our road to a safer community never runs through the jail," Khan said. "While we support improving our current jails to make them more humane and more conducive to healing, this is a moment to reimagine and move away from mass incarceration as our answers to community ailments."

The Main Jail South project, already several years in the works, was demolished over the summer and up for bid with a March 2021 award target. Now with that project on pause, county staff will return to the Board on Nov. 17 to study a similar move by Los Angeles County -- a $1.7 billion jail-replacement project in August 2019.

The report will also examine inmate housing and mental illness rates; identify different approaches to provide mental health services; and evaluate the impacts of having 1,000 in-custody inmates released back into the community under supervision because of COVID-19.