Gascon, supes introduce mental health alternative to new jail

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and some members of the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday introduced plans to build a behavioral health center in The City as an alternative to the failed proposal to build a new jail.

The new behavioral health center would be a tiered facility that houses both inmates and patients on floors with different levels of security, Gascon said. The proposal comes less than a month after the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 15 unanimously turned down an $80 million grant to build the hotly contested jail.

“Just about a month ago we were talking about building another jail in San Francisco,” Gascon said. “I believe that the data does support building a mental health facility.”

Gascon estimates 40 percent of the 1,300 inmates in County Jail have some sort of mental illness and 80 percent of calls to police involve mental health issues. The current wait for a mental health bed in The City is 90 days, which means jail inmates held on small crimes who need mental health attention are often released before they can access it, he said.

“We continue to create a cycle of criminality, a very expensive cycle,” Gascon said. “San Francisco doesn’t need additional jail beds, what we need is additional mental health beds.”

The new facility would provide referrals and transfers for patients and inmates, monitoring, in- and out-patient treatment, follow-ups and mental health screenings both before and after an arrest, according to a press release from the District Attorney’s office. The center would also help an inmate transition from being in custody to rejoining the community.

Gascon was joined by supervisors David Campos, Malia Cohen and Jane Kim inside the Hall of Justice, where the proposal was announced.

However, Gascon’s announcement received a cold reception from Board of Supervisors President London Breed, who last month joined her colleagues in voting down the jail project, and in response introduced a resolution to create a working group establishing plans for the mental health facility.

“It’s naked grandstanding. We are already doing this,” said Breed. “I introduced legislation to create a working group last month. If Mr. Gascon wants to be a policymaker, he should run for the Board of Supervisors.”

The resolution is set to be voted on by the board next Tuesday. Leading the working group would be incoming sheriff Vicki Hennessy and Director of Public Health Barbara Garcia, according to Breed’s office. If passed, it will also include Gascon’s office, the police department, mental health professionals and others.

For Gascon’s part, his office has brought on-board professor Craig Haney of University of California Santa Cruz and Michael Romano of Stanford University’s Justice Advocacy Project to draft a white paper for the working group to use as a blueprint for the project.

Campos said his office has tasked budget and legislative analysts for the Board of Supervisors with figuring out how many mental health beds are needed, the resources required to build a health facility and how many jail inmates suffer from mental health issues.

“I personally believe we have a mental health crisis in The City and county of San Francisco,” said Campos, who added that he sees it manifesting in the streets and the many homeless encampments of The City. “Putting a person in jail will not only not help that person, it will make things worse.”

Cohen said she and Supervisor London Breed have worked on securing potential sites, including one next to San Francisco General Hospital, for the health center to be built on. But Gascon said he preferred a location next to the courts.

The parcel adjacent to the Hall of Justice on the 800 block of Bryant Street was recently acquired by The City following the closure of a McDonald’s restaurant. Kim said it is a location where the facility could be built.

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