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San Diego Union-Tribune

County Supervisors OK study to keep some with mental illness, drug problems out of jail

By Kelly Davis,


San Diego County’s jails, like many throughout the country, have maintained lower than usual inmate populations during the pandemic, prompting some criminal justice reformers and policymakers to ask if it’s time to rethink who we incarcerated and why.

On Tuesday the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve a proposal by Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer to take a data-driven approach to identifying programs and services that advocates say could keep thousands of people out of jail each year without jeopardizing public safety.

Lawson-Remer said the county needs to stop using its jails “as a first-line response to dealing with so many of our social challenges and social ills,” such as drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness.

“It’s completely inappropriate; it is ineffective; it doesn’t help individuals have a second chance and build a better future,” she said recently.

Her proposal cites national research showing that incarceration, even for a few days, can do long-lasting harm to a person.

And it’s expensive. A 2021 study by the American Addiction Centers found it costs $81,000 a year to incarcerate someone with a mental health illness, versus $32,000 a year to provide housing and social services. It costs even less — $3,000 to $10,000 — for outpatient drug or alcohol treatment.

This will be Lawson-Remer’s second jail-related policy proposal. In March, she won board support to end the practice of charging inmates for phone calls and video visits, making San Diego County the second county in California — behind San Francisco — to make jail phone calls free.

Lawson-Remer said she wants to use data to identify the drivers of incarceration and the gaps in the services that, if filled, could keep people out of jail.

“Instead of returning to ‘business as usual,’ we have the opportunity and the moral imperative to examine the data to identify better approaches, with the objective of reducing our structural overreliance on incarceration as a first line response when alternative treatments and services can address the root causes of justice system involvement and promote public safety in a more cost-effective and humane way,” her proposal says.

Lt. Amber Baggs, spokeswoman for Sheriff Bill Gore, said the sheriff agrees there should be alternatives to incarceration, especially for people who cycle through jail due to homelessness, addiction and mental illness.

“We support a data-driven approach to expanding San Diego County resources and facilities for people suffering from an addiction to alcohol or illegal drugs and those experiencing a mental health crisis,” Baggs wrote in an email.

Currently 4,000 people are spread among six county jails, according to a recent count by the Sheriff’s Department. Early in 2020, San Diego jails held 5,600 people, until new bail rules enacted to mitigate the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak and the early release of low-risk defendants reduced jail populations by roughly one-third.

There has been an uptick in some crimes, such as aggravated assault, according to a mid-year analysis of crime statistics by the San Diego Association of Governments, raising questions about whether the lower jail population is to blame, Baggs said.

“We cannot say there is a direct correlation with overall crime rates and a lower jail population, but it does require further analysis to determine which criminal offenses should require incarceration and which would benefit from an alternative to jail,” she said.

Lawson-Remer’s proposal asks the county’s chief administrative officer to hire a consultant who would spend about a year gathering data and public input, “with a focus on identifying policy interventions that would most effectively, safely, and permanently reduce the San Diego jail populations.”

Lawson-Remer said she would like the county to shift its public safety approach to a “safety through services” model. The goal, she said, is to determine whether money saved from lower incarceration rates could be shifted to permanent supportive housing, mental and behavioral health services and drug and alcohol treatment.

“We have a lot of people who are just rearrested, rearrested, rearrested for minor misdemeanors,” she said. “Clearly what we’re doing is not working.”

Early in the pandemic, the San Diego Union Tribune analyzed jail bookings, finding that the majority of misdemeanor arrests were tied to substance abuse, with many arrestees experiencing homelessness.

On April 6, 2020, the California Judicial Council issued an emergency order lowering bail to $0 for people arrested on misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Yet hundreds of people continued to be detained for being under the influence of drugs or alcohol in public.

Both the San Diego police and the sheriff’s department said at the time that they have no choice but to take an intoxicated person to jail if that person is deemed a poor candidate for a city or county detox center due to behavioral issues.

“Our society does not have an answer for this particular population,” said San Diego Police Lt. Shawn Takeuchi in an April 2020 interview.

Public Defender Randy Mize told the San Diego Union-Tribune that Lawson-Remer’s proposal is a necessary next step to pandemic-driven efforts to keep people out of jail. He said county prosecutors, public defenders and the court system have been working collaboratively to maintain a lower jail population.

“My hope is that this study will identify service gaps in our justice system, (such as) short-term alternatives to custody, like mental health and sobering facilities, that could be created and implemented at a much lower cost than incarceration and will add to recidivism reduction,” he said.

The county’s top prosecutors — District Attorney Summer Stephan and San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliot, whose office prosecutes misdemeanor crimes — agreed that the jail has been a revolving door for too many people.

“I support Supervisor Lawson-Remer’s data-driven effort to establish countywide alternatives to criminalization that keep our community safe, divert vulnerable residents to needed services and offer a meaningful opportunity to get their lives back on track,” Elliot said in an emailed statement.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Stephan said using jails as detox centers is a poor deployment of resources.

“We know that there are thousands who are booked for a few hours until they are sober and then released without any charges,” she said. “There needs to be a different solution.”

Lawson-Remer’s proposal comes on the heels of a judge’s ruling that a lawsuit filed against the sheriff’s department by the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties over COVID-19 mitigation efforts can proceed. Among other things, the lawsuit demands that Gore maintain a reduced jail population. The lawsuit is scheduled for trial in July 2022.

Jonathan Markovitz, lead attorney in the ACLU lawsuit, said that San Diego’s largest jails are often near capacity, with people sleeping three to a cell or in crowded dormitories.

“Combined with limited availability of quality health care, these overcrowded conditions put people in a heightened risk for contracting the virus,” he said. “Any efforts by the Board of Supervisors to reduce the population in county jails would help to prevent the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak from spiraling out of control once again.”

Lawson-Remer’s proposal asks the county’s chief administrative officer to report back to the board on Feb. 8 with a preliminary analysis and recommendations for programs that could be included in next year’s budget. A final report, due in February 2023, would include a five-year plan for adding services and programs.


2:01 p.m. Oct. 19, 2021: This story has been updated to reflect the Board of Supervisors vote to approve the measure.

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