North County police who arrest people they believe to be mentally ill may soon have an alternative to taking them to the County Jail in Vista.
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved an application for state funds to help pay for private hospital beds for mentally ill criminal suspects.
Stephen Harmon, the county's assistant director of mental health, said the program is aimed at providing for North County the same services that have long been available in central San Diego.
Harmon said a study of bookings at the Vista jail in October and November showed that about 190 of 2,477 arrests involved suspects in need of psychiatric evaluation or care.
Under the new program, those suspects--most of whom are arrested for vagrancy, loitering or creating a public nuisance--would be taken by police directly to hospitals or a private mental health center rather than to jail, freeing additional cells for more serious criminals.
The patients would then be under 24-hour care until psychiatrists decide if they are fit to be released. Then, before being let go, each patient would be given a "discharge plan" laying out the kind of continued psychiatric care recommended at outpatient clinics or residential treatment centers.
In San Diego, mentally ill suspects are taken to the county's mental health hospital in Hillcrest. Harmon said about 65% of the patients screened for admission at Hillcrest are brought there by police. In addition, the County Jail downtown has a hospital ward for the mentally ill. No such program exists in Vista.
Assistant Sheriff Clifford Powell, who supervises the county jail system, said he hopes the program will relieve the Vista jail's staff from the responsibility of dealing with the mentally ill.
"I think the idea is if they can somehow divert someone who is mentally ill rather than putting them in jail, then that's going to be good for them and good for us," Powell said. "It's a step in the right direction."
The application approved unanimously by the county board Tuesday is expected to be approved by the state within two to three weeks, Harmon said.
The county will then attempt to sign contracts with San Luis Rey, Tri-City and Palomar hospitals to provide the beds. If those hospitals decline to participate, the county will accept proposals from private, independent firms that would set up a care center to serve the patients.
The program is expected to cost about $1.4 million a year, 85% of that coming from the state.