Kern County’s plan to reduce homelessness by jailing low-level offenders has raised concern among mental health experts who say the tactic will do more harm than good.
Meanwhile, financing talks between county officials and the city of Bakersfield have stalled after cost estimates skyrocketed, delaying the plan’s implementation.
The county had hoped the city would help pay for the hiring of detention deputies needed to guard the extra jail beds that would be used as part of the plan. However, the city balked after the county’s initial estimate of $1.6 million ballooned to more than $6 million.
While the city still expects to contribute funding for the project, the heavy price tag could become an issue.
“We’re not backing away from the deal,” said city spokesman Joe Conroy. “We just want to see a little bit more of what’s being done, and what’s being asked of the city.”
Deputy District Attorney Joseph Kinzel said costs were still being worked out, and reiterated county law enforcement agencies were dedicated to making the new strategy work.
District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer, along with Sheriff Donny Youngblood, first proposed the plan to the Board of Supervisors in September, claiming a criminal element had inserted itself into Bakersfield’s homeless population, and the only way to deal with it was to force people into prison.
And even if the plan did cost $6 million, it would be worth it, Kinzel said.
“The city and county have combined budgets exceeding $3 billion,” he wrote in an email. “If dedicating less than 0.2 percent of the combined budgets of the city and county helps to give our police back the ability to actually enforce the law, combat addiction, and provide accountability for repeat offenders, then it will be money well spent.”
The county says the plan specifically targets homeless individuals who repeatedly violate criminal law, yet are given citations instead of sentences.
After Proposition 47 passed in 2014, crimes like possession of heroin and methamphetamine, along with stealing less than $950 worth of property, went from felonies to misdemeanors.
A lack of available jail beds means those caught for misdemeanors don’t see time behind bars. They might not even go before a judge if they are given a ticket with a promise to show up in court.
Because the problem is they never do show up, according to local law enforcement, and victimize Bakersfield residents over and over.
But adding more deputies and stuffing more people into jail cells are not the correct tactics for dealing with a rise in homelessness, say two board members of Kern County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.
Deborah Fabos and Fawn Kennedy Dessy, who both belong to the Mental Health Collaborative of Kern County, recently sent a letter to supervisors urging them not to go forward with the proposal.
They say the money would be better spent on addiction and mental health treatment facilities that are better equipped than the police to handle mental health problems associated with homelessness.
Especially troubling to the pair is the ability of law enforcement to issue jail sentences for infractions like trespassing, which could be delivered even to first-time offenders.
“This idea of criminalizing them, and building jails, and hiring people to keep them in cages, that is just so outdated and inhumane,” Fabos said. “And it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work.”
Her concerns echo statements made in state and national media. Everyone from the Los Angeles Times to NPR has published pieces detailing the plan, often saying it “flies in the face” of criminal justice reforms.
“One of our people picked it up in L.A., and they picked it up in Virginia where a treatment advocacy center is at, and they’re like, ‘what the hell is happening in Bakersfield,’” Kennedy Dessy said. “It’s like we’re taking a more archaic, Dark Ages approach by putting people in jail.”
Kern County officials, however, are not quite as bleak.
They see the new proposal as another piece in the complex puzzle of fighting the county’s homeless crisis.
“I think that everyone is looking at different options,” Kinzel said. “We’re not saying that our solution is the sole answer to the problem that is effecting the community. Do we need more housing? I think that yes we do. But by providing more services, without addressing the issue of criminality, we think they go hand in hand.”
It is unclear when county officials will bring the matter before the Board of Supervisors. If approved, deputies will need to be hired before it will go into effect.