Orange County is embracing a new approach to break the cycle of mental illness, addiction, homelessness, and incarceration.
On Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a system of care that incorporates enhanced mental health care, substance abuse treatment, and vocational training into its criminal justice system.
“Mental illness and drug addiction are some of the root causes of homelessness,” said Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do, who serves as Chair of the Orange County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (OCCJCC). “This new approach keeps violent offenders locked up, help addicts get clean and sober, and provides treatment for patients with mental health issues.”
Over the past 10 months, Supervisor Do worked with Supervisor Doug Chaffee, Sheriff Don Barnes, and members of the OCCJCC to develop the new approach laid out in the Integrated Services 2025 Vision Report. The report puts in action solutions to issues identified through the 2017 Stepping Up Initiative, a countywide assessment of Orange County’s correctional health, mental health, and criminal justice systems.
“Addressing the needs of the most vulnerable is our collective test, and only together can we begin to solve those systematic issues,” said Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee. “And we cannot do this without your support: our residents, community leaders and stakeholders.”
Habitual Offenders Cycle In and Out of Prison
Five percent of offenders in Orange County – nearly 2,000 people – return to jail 5 times or more in a given year.
Among these high utilizers, who are responsible for 20 percent of all jail stays, 58 percent are homeless, 85 percent have reported substance use disorders, and 46 percent reported having moderate to severe mental illnesses.
“The best way to break this cycle is by getting mentally ill offenders on an effective treatment plan,” said Supervisor Do. “With more effective coordination, Orange County and our partners can maximize existing resources, seek additional state legislative social service support, and advance public safety.”
Jail: De Facto Mental Hospital
Far too many mentally ill and homeless individuals end up in Orange County’s jails. Between May 1, 2018 through April 31, 2019, 43,000 offenders entered the Orange County jails. Of those 43,000 offenders:
- 21 percent had a mental illness
- 40 percent suffered from substance use disorder
- 10 percent have a co-occurring disorder
“By default, the Orange County Jail has become the largest mental health hospital in our county,” said Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes. “As I have made clear many times, if our jail system is going to function as a mental health hospital, then it is going to be a good one.”
He added, “Increased specialized housing units for the mentally ill, higher medical and correctional staffing ratios, substance abuse step down units, and enhanced re-entry programs will all be implemented over the course of the next few years.”