People who could be successfully treated instead languish and die on our streets due to political inaction. We can change that. We can reduce crime, save lives and save millions of tax dollars by finally getting serious about the untreated mental health issues that are increasing our homeless population, contributing to increased crime rates and wasting millions of taxpayer dollars .
Californians know that in recent decades the state has largely dismantled the hospital system that cares for the mentally ill, such as the Agnews facility here in San Jose. The closing of these institutions correlates with increased rates of homelessness and incarceration. The state’s goal was to replace these facilities with community-based treatment, but that goal was never achieved, leaving thousands of people here in San Jose suffering on our streets, in our jails, or desperately trying to seek treatment in the most expensive way possible – in our emergency departments.
After failing to fully address the crisis for decades, Santa Clara County supervisors have finally been forced to declare that our county is in a mental health crisis. According to data from the California Board of State and Community Correctional Institutions, the rate of mental illness in Santa Clara County jails has increased by more than 60 percent in the past decade. In 2019, 65% of individuals in our jails had an active mental health condition, an increase from 5% in 2009. These data also show that 47% of inmates in our county jails were receiving psychotropic medication on a regular basis. a dramatic increase from 16% a decade ago.
Currently, about 40% of Santa Clara County’s homeless population suffers from serious mental health problems, while 35% self-report substance abuse. And an average of 8% of emergency room visits nationally are for mental health or substance abuse diagnoses — visits that cost an average of $2,960 each in California.
Making matters worse, Santa Clara County has only 13 hospital beds per 100,000 residents. Experts recommend 50 beds for every 100,000 residents – meaning our county needs nearly 1,000 additional beds to meet the needs of our community. Studies show that providing more psychiatric inpatient beds and mental health services reduces crime rates, especially violent crimes. We can save lives, reduce crime rates, reduce homelessness and save taxpayer money by requiring those who are a danger to themselves or others to use these options once they are available.
It’s not that the county doesn’t have money to increase treatment options. Santa Clara County has more than $100 million in state mental health funds that it has failed to spend. The Board of Supervisors took $76 million in COVID-19 relief dollars and spent it on bonuses for county staff, many of whom make $250,000 a year or more. They spent $4.5 million on staff parking. The board even approved $1 million to write a book about their own achievements.
It is clear that it is not about the money, but about bad management and lack of political will. Every dollar we wasted could have saved us seven dollars in criminal justice costs with an appropriate investment in treatment programs.
Santa Clara County was among the last to formally adopt Laura’s Law last year, just before the state’s deadline, with Supervisor Cindy Chavez still expressing reservations about the life-saving law. The county has yet to fully implement that law, which requires treatment for people who are a danger to themselves and others. And while counties like San Francisco are moving quickly to roll out the new CARE courts that help homeless residents suffering from mental illness or drug and alcohol addiction get treatment, Santa Clara County is once again lagging behind.
It’s only difficult for politicians who face political pressure to send staff bonuses or scrutiny from advocates who think it’s somehow nice to let people hurt themselves and others.
If we pay attention to the facts, not politics as usual, we can reduce crime, homelessness and save taxpayers millions while saving lives. It’s just common sense.
Matt Mahan represents District 10 on the San Jose City Council and is running for mayor.