Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown and others discussed the effects of sparse mental health spending on overcrowded county jails at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting.
Lacking enough mental health care facilities to aid them, mentally ill individuals in the state are often incarcerated and exhibit a high recidivism rate. Currently, PHS Correctional Healthcare — one of the nation’s largest health care providers for prisoners — responds to the needs of Santa Barbara County Jail inmates. However, in spite of PHS’s efforts, Brown said a growing number of prisoners and declining state funds make it increasingly difficult to provide effective health care in county jails.
Suzanne Riordan, executive director of Families ACT!, said the issue of overcrowding began decades ago when the state shut down many of the county’s mental health facilities.
“It all really began in the 1960s when so many of the mental hospitals closed, and the plan to open new community mental health centers never developed,” Riordan said. “They had nowhere else to go.”
According to local attorney Emily Allen, the county would benefit from courts specific to mental health.
“There, a judge could listen to the particular situation and say that it might be better to send that person to mental treatment than to jail,” Allen said.
Currently, once mentally ill inmates are released, Allen said patients are given few incentives to avoid breaking the law or returning to jail.
“There is a serious shortage of residential programs, which could prevent these patients from ever deteriorating to the point where they commit crimes,” Allen said.
According to Riordan, mentally ill individuals in county jails suffer at the hands of their medical provider. PHS, she said, does not deliver medication in a timely fashion nor allow families to be involved in patient care.
However, Riordan said, the jail does spend between $40-50,000 a month on medicine for its inmates.
“That is a huge number when you consider that the jail is in no way a health facility,” Riordan said.
According to 35th District State Assemblyman Das Williams, a former Santa Barbara City Council member, insufficient mental health care facilities in the county and its consequence on the jail is unlikely to improve without additional funding. and its consequence on the jail is unlikely to improve without additional funding.
“I commend Sheriff Brown for working to address the issue of mental health care in our jails, especially given that the jails should not be straddled with the responsibility or cost,” Williams said. “The system is far from perfect and without further revenue, we will have to do even more with less.”