State Senator’s Bill, Backed By County Officials, Aims To Boost County Jail Mental Health Services

BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

California State Senator Tom Umberg (D - Santa Ana), center, speaks at a press conference.

Orange County jails could widen their funding to treat inmates with mental illnesses while they’re incarcerated, under a bill proposed by California State Senator Tom Umberg (D – Santa Ana).

County officials endorsing the bill say it would expand the number of treatment options they can give inmates at the county jails, which they called “de facto mental health hospitals.”

“It makes all the sense in the world for those who are incarcerated, but also it makes all the sense in the world for all of the public to be protected,” Umberg said to reporters at a Thursday, Aug. 8, news conference. “So that those who come into the jail facility, they receive the treatment they need and they don’t recidivate – they don’t come back.”

Umberg’s bill, if passed and signed by the governor, would authorize counties across California to tap into state money designated for mental health services to pay for the treatment of county jail inmates — something that state prisons holding convicted felons can’t do under existing law and still wouldn’t be able to under this one.

Orange County Sheriff’s Department Spokeswoman Carrie Braun said the county jails hold both convicted felons and those charged with felonies.  In July, the jails saw an average daily total of 1,178 inmates with felony convictions, she said.

The proposed legislation excludes all people convicted of felonies “because generally speaking those felons should be in state prison instead of county jail, but because of realignment they are in county jail,” said Michael Hennings, a senior member of Umberg’s staff.

The state money comes from a tax on millionaires across California, also known as the Mental Health Services Act, which voters passed in 2004. The money is supposed to go to public mental health services.

Where existing law specifically prohibits the money from going toward people incarcerated in state prisons, it doesn’t say whether the money can go to county jail inmates. That’s where Umberg says his bill comes in, giving counties the OK to tap into that funding stream.

The bill is on hold in the state Senate Appropriations Committee, where Hennings said it won’t be voted on until the end of the month, at the latest. Umberg said  he has “every reason to believe” Gov. Gavin Newsom will sign it into law if it lands on his desk.

Around 30 percent of Orange County’s inmate population has a mental health issue, according to county officials.

The county jails in 2018 saw 61,000 bookings, said Sheriff Don Barnes, adding that 9,200 people who cycled through the jail system repeatedly that year had a mental illness.

Of that number, 2,200 people “were classified as severely or persistently ill — the highest classification of mental illness,” Barnes said.

Umberg in his remarks called Barnes, Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do, and Health Care Agency Director Richard Sanchez “leaders” in the area of mental health while they stood behind him.

County supervisors by 2017 had cut $16 million in funding over a decade from public health services, which includes mental health, while increasing spending on the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which controls the jails and was criticized by Orange County Grand Jurors in 2016 for an over reliance on medication and padded cell isolation techniques for inmates with mental illnesses.

Do at the news conference called Umberg’s proposed bill “timely,” amid “limited” funding for “local efforts (that) have been underway to pay for more services.”

Until recently, Orange County supervisors had stockpiled hundreds of millions of unspent Mental Health Services Act dollars for years. In 2018 it was reported the county had reached $186 million beyond the reserves.

That was until May, when supervisors approved what they said was an $85 million increase in the spending of Mental Health Services Act dollars, part of a new three-year spending plan for the money.

The spending increase came after U.S. Federal Judge David O. Carter — presiding over a now-settled homeless lawsuit against the county and its cities for a lack of homeless shelters — reprimanded county officials for stockpiling the funds.

The three-year spending plan includes funding for a mental health treatment campus, permanent housing and supportive services for people with mental illnesses, and renovations of mental health crisis units.

In a 126-page report submitted to the county in 2017, former county Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and then-Supervisor Todd Spitzer encouraged the diversion of mentally ill people away from the county jails and into treatment.

That report outlined recommendations for expanding mental health services, court efforts to divert people into treatment, and creating a county office to coordinate re-entry programs for “re-offenders, the mentally ill and the homeless.”

Hutchens’ and Spitzer’s recommendations were part of a 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,” their report read.

But a majority of county supervisors at the time turned down a request to start a public discussion of the recommendations, opting instead to talk about it behind closed doors.

Do said he didn’t know whether the commitments the county has since made were a “direct result” of the closed-door discussions started in 2017, though those things were “built primarily on the work that was started by the Stepping Up Initiative.”

Orange County Grand Jurors in 2016 said the county jails’ mental health services lacked funding for treatment programs, and that they relied too much on isolation techniques and medication.

For inmates whose mental illness were deemed a danger to others, grand jurors said the jail tended to rely on medication and isolation in padded cells rather than counseling or structured programs — a practice neither safe nor therapeutic for those who were seriously ill, according to the report.

The Grand Jury laid out a number of recommendations for overhauling the jails’ mental health services, including additional funding for psychiatric care and the creation of mental health programs for all inmates, among other things.

Barnes in his remarks said the jails “are not the place” to treat people with mental illness, though it is the place “where they sometimes end up.”

“If we’re going to be a mental health hospital,” he said, “we’re going to be a good one.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.