Improve conditions in jail, expand treatment in community

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The Sheriff’s Office in Alameda County has had the most expensive legal suits in all of Northern California of close to fifteen million dollars total filed against them. We have a criminal-legal system that continues to prioritize incarceration over care in the community for those struggling with mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness.

The recent Babu v. Alameda County class action settlement improves some jail conditions but does not provide systemic solutions for decreasing the number of mentally ill people that end up at the county jail. Funneling millions into an already bloated sheriff’s budget takes us even further from community-based solutions that can make a genuine difference.

Like other jails and prisons across the country, Alameda County overincarcerates people of lower socioeconomic status and people of color. More than 70% of the people in our county jail remain there because they are unable to post bail. More than 40% of those incarcerated have mental health issues, and in many cases, serious and persisting mental illness. Sheriff Greg Ahern runs a jail that focuses on punishment – not rehabilitation. Our communities are not any safer when people in jail are treated with disregard and contempt along with enduring inhumane conditions.

The settlement requires the sheriff to update policies and practices so that they are in line with standards determined by the joint expert reports in areas including inmate classification, use of force and disciplinary measures, program and educational opportunities, out-of-cell time and grievance procedures.

Recognizing that the high number of detainees with mental illness cannot be accommodated with the present staffing capacities, the settlement calls for more treatment spaces in the jail, along with an increase in the numbers of deputies and behavioral health clinicians. In other words, it allows the jail to continue to masquerade as a mental health treatment facility. This, in turn, mandates jail-centered expenditures that will continue to burden the county and limit its resources for urgently needed treatment in the community for years to come.

Jails are no place for people with mental illnesses. It has been proven that incarceration exacerbates mental illness and has contributed to the high rate of seventeen suicides in the last five years at Santa Rita Jail. Alameda County must act comprehensively in settling Babu and other litigations that the county currently faces. This litigation should provide the motivation and the means to promote systemwide reforms. Otherwise, we will continue the same cycle of forcing people with mental illnesses and unhoused to spend time in cages rather than in treatment programs or affordable housing with appropriate supports.

Until recently, community input with specific recommendations for community-based mental health services, including alternatives to incarceration, have gone largely unheeded. Finally, the work of groups such as the Justice Involved Mental Health Task Force, or JIMH, Decarcerate Alameda and the Interfaith Coalition for Justice in our Jails, led to a plan by Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services that incorporated most of the JIMH recommendations. In addition, the Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted a Care First, Jails Last resolution earlier this year, but the Board’s Care First action remains invisible in the proposed Babu case settlement.

The Babu case does not consider the possibility that expanded community treatment could decrease the jail population at Santa Rita and divert money, instead, to invest in housing, residential treatment and other programs focused on prevention and reentry support. The Board of Supervisors has allowed consequential and large-scale policymaking to happen behind closed doors when responding to the litigation, when they should be creating opportunities to bring the public’s concerns into view. The Babu attorneys leave no place for public monitoring, oversight or input.

The Board of Supervisors begins negotiations shortly with the U.S. Department of Justice concerning the substantial concerns in DOJ’s April 2021 report critiquing Alameda County’s inadequate mental health services. Legislating by legal settlements is a poor way of designing and implementing public policy. The county is reacting to legal suits instead of proactively creating a behavioral health system, drug treatment programs, residential treatment and housing that would address the critical needs of people with mental illnesses.

While we agree that conditions must be improved at Santa Rita Jail and commend many of the reforms incorporated in Babu, we strenuously object to a strategy that attempts to resolve community-wide problems primarily through improvements to jail conditions. Jail must not be the intervention and housing of first resort. The strategy to eliminate harm in the jail should begin with substantial reductions in the number of people detained.

Every person residing in Alameda County – detainee at Santa Rita or not, taxpayer or not, in need of mental health services or not – has a stake in how this plays out. It is time to think boldly. This is our county jail and regardless of whether you are a person in need of mental health and housing services or simply a taxpayer, we should be pressuring the Board of Supervisors to divert some of the millions of dollars of this settlement into much-needed treatment programs in the community.

Micky Duxbury, Myrna Schwartz and Richard Speiglman are members of The Interfaith Coalition for Justice in our Jails