By Lisa Kopochinski
SAN JOSE, Calif.—Construction has been halted on the new 535-bed Main Jail South project in downtown San Jose. Instead, a mental health treatment center may take its place to provide care for mentally ill inmates in the county’s jail system.
In a recent meeting, Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to halt the $390 million Main Jail South replacement project and potentially build a treatment center that would be overseen by the Public Health Department and staffed by the county’s Behavioral Health Department.
“At its core, the new facility should center on care first, jail last,” said County Supervisor Dave Cortese, in a statement, who first requested this at an August board meeting.
“With a low jail population caused by COVID-19 prevention and the growing need for mental health services, the County has the opportunity to re-envision how inmates are treated while in custody and, more importantly, how they can be diverted from custody in the first place.”
Since March, the county prison population dropped more than a third, to approximately 2,100 people in jail to reduce crowding and the spread of COVID-19. With no spike in crime rates, this— along with pushes from reform activists—encouraged county leaders to shift support to this unique proposal.
“What we’ve learned is that people’s paths to rehabilitation and our road to a safer community never runs through the jail,” said Alternate Public Defender Sajid Khan, in a statement.
“While we support improving our current jails to make them more humane and more conducive to healing, this is a moment to reimagine and move away from mass incarceration as our answers to community ailments.”
The Main Jail South project—which has been in the works for several years—was demolished over the summer and is up for bid with a March 2021 award target.
County staff will return to the board in mid-November to study a similar move that Los Angeles County made in 2019 regarding a $1.7 billion jail-replacement project.
The County will examine numerous factors including inmate housing and mental illness rates, identifying different approaches to provide mental health services, and evaluating the impacts of having 1,000 in-custody inmates released back into the community under supervision because of current pandemic.