Citing a severe shortage of mental health services in Orange County, Santa Ana officials are considering turning much of their mostly vacant city jail into a mental health treatment center.
"Here in Orange County, we have a crisis with mental illness," said Councilwoman Michele Martinez in proposing the change during a recent City Council meeting.
The discussion came up when consultants were hired to study options for re-purposing the jail.
The facility no longer houses the vast majority of people arrested by city police because county jails hold them at no expense to the city.
And the City Council has prompted a quick phase-out of the jail's contract to house federal immigration detainees, leaving more than 350 empty beds and costing the city millions in lost revenue.
Martinez said the number of mental health treatment beds in the county dropped from 1,217 in 1995 to 481 today in a county with a total population of 3.1 million.
The drop has been attributed by the county Health Care Agency to public and private insurance companies cutting their coverage for psychiatric hospitals.
"Not just here in Orange County, but across the United States, we have looked at mental illness as a crime," Martinez said. "It is not a crime to be mentally ill."
A mental health center "makes the most sense" for the city jail's future use, she said, adding that the sheriff of Cook County, Ill., has implemented a "really great model" for this.
The idea has gained traction among three of Martinez's colleagues. Council members Sal Tinajero, Vicente Sarmiento and David Benavides have agreed they want a mental health facility to be among the options considered.
Tinajero, in particular, argued that treating underlying issues like mental illness reduces crime and improves public safety.
Any changes to the jail's use would require four council members' votes. A decision isn't expected until after the consultant, Vanir Construction Management, finishes its study and reports back to the council, in August at the earliest.
The jail has 512 beds, but it isn't used to detain the vast majority of local arrestees because the county Sheriff's Department jails them nearby at no cost to the city. Only two local arrestees were in the city jail as of Wednesday morning, according to Police Chief Carlos Rojas.
Instead, Santa Ana has been renting out jail beds to state and federal agencies for their detainees. But less than a third of the jail's capacity is now being used, after the City Council phased out the jail's largest tenant, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
As of Wednesday morning, the jail had 151 inmates and 361 empty beds, according to Rojas.
One idea floated by Sarmiento is to keep some of the jail's beds for a smaller holding facility for local arrestees, like those in Anaheim and other cities, while using much of the rest of the facility for services like mental health treatment.
The other three council members — Mayor Miguel Pulido and councilmen Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas — have tried, unsuccessfully, to revive the ICE contract, pointing to the loss of millions of dollars in revenue and the likelihood of immigration detainees being transferred to jails hours away from families and lawyers. They didn't indicate much support for the mental health proposal.
Pulido said he wants the city to try to "emulate" the early days of the jail back in the 1990s, when it was full of inmates and made money for the city.
"I think the level of occupancy at the jail, that's the main problem," Pulido said. "We have more staff than prisoners."
But if it's not feasible to increase the inmate population, he said the city could go with Martinez's mental health proposal.
The jail was planned during a crime wave in the 1990s, and when cities were charged large "booking fees" to keep inmates at county jails. But those fees are no longer charged to Santa Ana, and the jail hasn't been used to house local arrestees since 1999, according to city staff.
Solorio didn't say he supported an overall mental health facility. But he said he wants the consultant to look at the feasibility of having the jail provide rehabilitation programs for people getting out of jail, including mental health and drug treatment.
Funding will be a critical question for any alternative use of the jail. It currently costs about $20 million per year to run, including staff and bond payments for its construction. Much of that cost was previously covered by the ICE contract.
James Kendrick, a longtime Santa Ana resident and former parks commissioner, supports the jail and questioned how the city will make up for losing $7 million per year from the ICE contract.
But Tinajero said "the county has a ton of money ready to go, for any organization that is willing to take on this task."
The Health Care Agency spends more than $200 million per year on mental health services, though Tinajero didn't say how much is available for new programs.
Meanwhile, health activists expressed concern that the consultant chosen by the city would recommend only options that increase the number of jail inmates.
Vanir was hired to manage construction of new jails in Riverside and San Diego counties in recent years, and its jail reuse study for Los Angeles County only recommended jail expansion, according to activists from the Building Healthy Communities coalition.
The coalition has been pushing the city to shift its spending priorities, after a study it commissioned found the city focused more spending on arresting youth than developing them through libraries, mentorship, job skills and other initiatives.
Vanir is based in Sacramento and run by Doreen C. Dominguez.
Martinez said she knows Dominguez and that she's "a good human being" who has hired young people from Santa Ana at her organization.
Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and Resilience OC noted city staff removed several parts of the jail reuse study after Vanir was chosen as the winning bidder.
Among the deletions were requirements that the study include alternatives to detention and that it review conditions in the jail.
In response, Sarmiento had the review of jail conditions put back in. He and other council members emphasized they want a wide variety of proposals from Vanir that are not limited to incarceration.
The council ended up voting 5 to 0 to award the consulting contract to Vanir, with Tinajero absent and Pulido abstaining.
The mayor said he abstained because he was on track to "potentially work" with Vanir years ago in his capacity as an engineer.
This story was reported by Voice of OC, a nonprofit investigative newsroom, as part of a publishing agreement with TimesOC. Reporter Nick Gerda can be contacted at email@example.com.