For decades, Santa Barbara County has suffered from an excruciatingly small number of involuntary treatment beds for those in severe mental health crisis. Last week, a county committee authorized the expenditure of $4 million to convert Santa Barbara’s old juvenile hall on Hollister Avenue into a 15-bed lockdown facility for individuals whose psychological issues have gotten them in criminal trouble. The point of the new facility — known in the bureaucratic parlance as an “institution for mental disease” or IMD — is to keep the mentally ill out of County Jail and get them into treatment. There are no IMD beds anywhere in Santa Barbara County and never have been. The same committee — the Community Corrections Partnership — authorized an additional $750,000 to staff the new facility.
That’s only enough, however, to run it for two months. Where the rest of that money comes from has yet to be determined, but Behavioral Wellness czar Alice Gleghorn noted that millions can be saved by the new bed spaces. Gleghorn said the county spends $3 million a year keeping low-level criminal offenders deemed “incompetent to stand trial” (ISTs) in the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF). By placing such individuals in the new lockdown facility, the county will save a bundle. A night at the PHF costs $2,000. By contrast, a night in the repurposed juvenile hall will cost $500.
In the next couple weeks, county supervisors are slated to hear a progress report from Marian Medical in Santa Maria about plans to convert its now-closed urgent care facility into an institution for mental disease. The project has been the subject of considerable planning and anticipation for nearly five years, and the number of beds reportedly under consideration hovers around 20. Currently, the county spends about $3.5 million a year sending 42 IMD patients to out-of-county facilities. Demand for such beds is intense. About five Santa Barbara patients are currently on waiting lists for out-of-county providers, but for every bed space, there are 70-100 qualified patients statewide.