In a well-orchestrated surprise attack, mental-health advocates quietly stormed the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors’ chambers this Tuesday, and in the words of one critic, “hijacked” the meeting to demand a range of treatment options for the mentally ill rather than just putting them behind bars. For more than an hour, more than a dozen people — including at least one mentally ill person, several mothers of mentally ill children, and many religious leaders — focused on an issue that wasn’t even on the board agenda.
The group, which was led by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) and Families ACT, did so by taking advantage of the time at the beginning of public meetings that state law reserves as an open forum on any issue. Frequently, this time is monopolized by political eccentrics and crackpots, but activists of various stripes have recently been seizing it for their own agenda.
In this case, it was to hammer home the conclusion of a recent CLUE report showing that at any given time, 250 inmates at the County Jail are locked up for nonviolent offenses tied to mental illness rather than criminal intent. “Putting people in treatment would cost $20,000 less per year per person,” said Nick Beeson, the report’s author, estimating the county could save $3 million a year with just 150 of those being given different treatment. “To do the right thing,” he said, “would cost us less.”
People have made this point repeatedly for 30 years, and in 2008, Sheriff Bill Brown’s own task force on jail overcrowding concluded similarly. In 2011, the Grand Jury complained that the jail’s revolving door for the mentally ill was unsustainably expensive and destructive to all.
Tuesday’s move was politically timed to Sheriff Brown’s ongoing race for reelection, which is likely to devolve into a referendum on his efforts to build a new North County jail. While Brown has secured a significant state grant to provide some services for the mentally ill, mental-health advocates remain decidedly skeptical. Said one speaker, “If you build it, they will come.”
Additionally, the supervisors will hear a major progress report next month on the reform of the county’s underfunded and often dysfunctional mental-health-care system. Conspicuously absent from either the new jail or the mental-health reforms are provisions for new assisted-living facilities, and that’s the gap these mental-health advocates seek to fill.
Prior to the hearing, Families ACT! members privately provided the supervisors a draft plan to build 70 units of supervised housing for those suffering from a mix of mental illness and addiction problems, funding the operation with a combination of rental income, tax breaks, and social-service dollars. Fueling Families ACT! for the past several years has been the abiding grief of parents who’ve lost their adult children to a combination of mental illness, incarceration, and drug overdoses. But adding real-estate-development expertise to the operation is Frank Thompson, a bona fide wheeler-dealer when it comes to getting affordable housing built. Thompson’s proposal, dubbed “Next Steps 2.0,” also suggests that it will cost millions to build but even more not to.
Conservative political watchdog Andy Caldwell took exception to the whole event, pointing out the supervisors’ bylaws limit the public comment period to no more than 15 minutes. “You just allowed your meeting to get hijacked,” he complained.
After the meeting, Supervisor Salud Carbajal took exception to Caldwell’s exception. “We didn’t get hijacked,” he said. “We were moved by what the people said. And we responded.” Though major changes are imminent for both mental health and the jail, Carbajal remained troubled that not all options were getting due consideration. “There’s a lot of activity right now, but I’m frustrated,” he said. “I don’t think we’re seeing what the gaps are and how we can best fill them. Maybe we can’t afford it, but we should at least know what we should be striving for. I’m just not seeing it.”