Sonoma County Advances in Building Behavioral Health Facility

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Sonoma County supervisors approved construction of a $49 million behavioral health facility in Santa Rosa to house the increasing number of inmates suffering from mental illness.

The board approved both the concept of a 72-bed facility in addition to an application for $40 million in state jail funding for the project. The balance would be paid using $6.2 million in county tobacco tax funds and other local sources, reported The Press Democrat. If all goes to plan, officials said the facility would open in 2020, located just north of the main jail.

The new facility would house inmates who are currently held in three specialized units of the main jail including those deemed incompetent to stand trial who are awaiting beds at Napa State Hospital and others with severe mental illness. Inmates suffering less-acute behavioral issues who are now among the jail’s general population would be moved into the special units, resulting in the closure of a wing at the lower-security North County Detention Center, reported The Press Democrat.

The new jail would have 38 employees and cost about $5.5 million a year to operate, according to The Press Democrat. Supporters of the new facility believe that amount will be offset by a reduction in the number of inmates who commit new crimes, fewer assaults and shorter jail stays. The closure of the North County wing, for instance, would reduce the cost to $4.9 million.

Preliminary plans call for a 33,400-square-foot facility with 48 cells — half of which will be double occupancy. All the cells will feature windows to provide inmates with natural light, according to a county staff report. Two separate housing units within the facility will have individual and group counseling rooms, a medical examination room, a day room and visiting rooms. Large-group programming space will also be built, according to The Press Democrat.

The county has seen a 400 percent increase in inmates diagnosed with mental illness since the jail opened in 1991, according to a board report in the behavioral health facility proposal. Currently, about 14 percent of the jail’s 1,123 inmates have acute mental illness, and 83 percent have some level of mental health issues. Supervisors agreed that the current system needed to be improved in order to care for mentally incompetent and acutely ill inmates who need to be held in special units of the main jail.

Sonoma County will compete with other counties for part of the $160 million in state jail funds set aside by the Legislature last year for medium-sized counties. The deadline for the county to apply for state funding was Aug. 28.

In the past, the county has refused to move forward with other major jail proposals. It dropped plans created by the Board of Supervisors in 2013 to build a $67 million, 160-bed detention facility for inmates transitioning out of jail and those on probation at a high risk to re-offend.
Up to $50 million for construction of that project was set to come from state jail funds, but the county would have had to pay for the remainder, plus an estimated annual cost of $11.5 million to run the facility. The county ultimately decided that the project was too pricey to move forward, according to The Press Democrat.