Orange County officials have released a series of recommendations for diverting mentally ill people from jails into treatment, saying it would improve public safety by reducing crime, while also saving taxpayer dollars.

But a majority of county supervisors turned down a request from one of their colleagues to start a public discussion of what they might want to implement.

Instead, at the request of Supervisor Andrew Do, they opted Tuesday to take the talks behind closed doors for an unspecified amount of time.

Over the past decade, the supervisors and their predecessors – who control public spending for mental health services and jails in Orange County – have cut county funding for health programs, according to county data, while adding tens of millions in funding to the Sheriff’s Department which polices the jails.

The suggestions for diverting mentally ill people into treatment were made by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and Supervisor Todd Spitzer as part of a broad-based collaboration with public health, law enforcement and social services officials in Orange County known as the Stepping Up Initiative.

“Studies and surveys continue to show that the [nation’s] jail systems are experiencing tremendous impacts from mentally ill individuals who enter the jail system when in fact, they should be diverted to treatment,” Hutchens and Spitzer wrote in their 126-page report.

“The Stepping Up Initiative seeks to address this problem through achieving its goal to reduce the number of people with mental illness in the U.S. jail systems.”

The 10 recommendations, which were presented in the report Tuesday, included expanding mental health services, court efforts to divert people into treatment, and creating a county-level office focused on coordinating re-entry programs for “re-offenders, the mentally ill and the homeless.”

(Click here to read the Stepping Up report and recommendations.)

The initiative would need funding to expand services, county staff said in a report, though the report added it also would save money from treating mental illnesses and drug abuse in community-based organizations rather than in jail. Further savings would come from a reduced number of repeated crimes, and a decrease in staff time needed to guide a mentally ill person through the criminal justice process, staff wrote.

“Preemptively diverting the low-level nonviolent offenders toward treatment and away from the criminal justice system will benefit the individual by addressing the underlying causes of the criminal behaviors and may reduce recidivism,” said the report by county CEO Frank Kim’s office.

“It will also allow for the efforts of the Sheriff, District Attorney, Public Defender, and the Court system, for example, to focus resources and address more significant criminal activity and behaviors and thereby increase public safety.”

The report was on the supervisors’ agenda Tuesday, and Spitzer wanted his colleagues to start talking about the recommendations and how to move forward.

“This first major report is probably the first heavy lift, if you will, to at least get to a discussion,” because it identifies many of the needs, Spitzer told the other supervisors.

He noted the broad cross section of support for the report, including signatures from Hutchens; the county’s chief probation officer, Steve Sentman; the county’s chief public defender, Sharon Petrosino; the county’s chief prosecutor, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas; the presiding judge of the Orange County Superior Court, Charles Margines; the police chief of Garden Grove; and the directors of the county Health Care Agency, its mental health system, and homeless services.

Spitzer said two recommendations the supervisors can start considering to get the process started are approving a definition of mental illness, and deciding how the county should create a screening and assessment tool for identifying people with mental illnesses.

The sheriff’s point person on the initiative, Assistant Sheriff Steve Kea, was standing at the speaker podium at Spitzer’s invitation, ready to answer questions.

While Spitzer wanted a dialogue on next steps, the other supervisors saw it differently.

Do asked his colleagues not to talk about it publicly, and instead take the discussion behind closed doors for an unspecified period of time.

“At this point, I would ask that we reserve the discussion on this,” Do said, suggesting the discussion continue in an “ad-hoc” committee about mental health between himself and Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, which meets privately.

“This is a much bigger discussion, and at some point if the board’s gonna take action it’s gonna require some concrete proposals for us to look at,” Do said, calling the .

Spitzer and Hutchens’ report included detailed proposals and cost breakdowns for its recommendations, like remodeling the county’s inmate intake and release center to expand mental health treatment services.

Do didn’t say how long he wanted to discuss the proposal in private before it returns for public discussion and potential action.

Neither of the other supervisors present – Shawn Nelson and Lisa Bartlett – responded, leaving Do’s suggestion unchallenged. Supervisor Michelle Steel was absent from the meeting.

Spitzer asked Kim, the county CEO, what the next steps would be. Kim said decisions on how to invest in the initiative would be made in the future, with the report serving as an “initial assessment” that gives context for those decisions. He noted the supervisors were already working toward implementing one of the recommendations, to establish a 24/7 mental health “urgent care and restoration center.”

No other supervisors spoke about the mental health initiative.

Supervisors did approve a preliminary structure for funding the initiative within their overall strategic financial plan, which calls for phasing it in over several years and the vast majority of funding to come from sources other than county discretional dollars. A large majority of the services would not begin until the fiscal year starting in July 2019, and would be contracted out to service providers, with no county staff positions added, according to the approved plan.

That financial plan isn’t final until the supervisors approve each year’s budget. The next budget will be approved in June.

Over the past decade, county supervisors have cut $16 million in funding they control from public health services, which includes mental health, while at the same time adding $64 million to the Sheriff’s Department budget, largely for salary and compensation increases.

During the same period, the deputy sheriffs’ union spent at least $348,000 to help elect current supervisors who voted for the compensation raises to deputies, including at least $218,000 for Steel in 2014 and $100,000 for Do last year. The union, which represents the deputies who staff the jails, is one of the largest financial supporters of the supervisors’ elections.

The Stepping Up Initiative was launched nationwide in May 2015 “to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in U.S. jails,” and is led on the national level by the National Association of Counties, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. As part of the initiative, Spitzer and Hutchens attended a conference in Washington D.C. in November 2016.

“The national statistics show an estimated two million individuals admitted into the nation’s jail system every year suffers some form of mental illness; thereby, making the nations’ jails some of the largest providers of mental health treatment in the country,” the sheriff and supervisor wrote in their report.

“Diverting low-level nonviolent offenders with mental illness and/or substance use-related issues away from jails and toward more appropriate community-based treatment services enhances public safety by addressing a repeat offender’s underlying needs that are often at the root of his/her misconduct.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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