It's only once in a blue moon that you see a drunk sitting in front of a market in San Mateo County making noise, irritating customers and obstructing business.
District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe only knows about the ones who pass through his courtroom with charges for disturbing the peace. That's fewer than a hundred individuals, he cautions, and possibly fewer than a dozen. But it's a group just large enough to create a thorn in the county's side.
The problem, according to Wagstaffe and county Behavioral Health and Recovery Services Director Stephen Kaplan, is that a tiny portion of that population is mentally incompetent to stand trial. A defense attorney or judge will make that call shortly after the person is arraigned.
But then people have to wait up to 60 days in custody to be evaluated — often much longer than they would have waited if they'd just pleaded guilty, Wagstaffe says. That means that a small population of mentally ill minor offenders is clogging up an already overcrowded County Jail system.
True, only 17 such mentally ill individuals came to jail on misdemeanor charges over the past year and stayed an average of 60 days, Kaplan wrote in an email. But at a time when San Mateo County is busy constructing a new $165 million jail in Redwood City because it can't house its current prison population, those 17 jail beds are worth considering. Kaplan and Wagstaffe have spent months discussing ways to streamline the evaluation process and steer mentally ill misdemeanor offenders directly into social services.
Last week, Kaplan persuaded the Board of Supervisors to consider setting aside roughly $466,000 in Measure A sales-tax revenues to fund alternatives to incarceration for adults with mental illness or substance abuse problems. The money would be spread over two years, with $233,000 apportioned to the health system each year during fiscal years 2013-14 and 2014-15.
While supervisors will have to revisit their recommendation this fall, they seemed to wholeheartedly endorse the proposal. District 2 Supervisor Carole Groom pointed out that county administrators have been discussing the problem of low-level, mentally incompetent offenders for some time, but that in previous years, they didn't have the funds to solve it.
"As the state continued to cut funds, we were unable to respond to some of these issues," Groom said. "We had these conversations a lot as we went through the programming for the jail and how we wanted to do things differently in the jail."
Indeed, the program shows San Mateo County's dedication to reducing its prison population — a weird irony for a county that just coaxed $85 million out of the state to complete its new Maple Street prison. Perhaps it's a small silver lining.
An earlier version of this story misstated the cost of the program being contemplated.