San Jose considering detox treatment options as alternative to jail time for meth users

The entrance to the Santa Clara County Jail
Santa Clara County Jail, one of the sites listed for a detoxification detention facility proposed by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. San Jose. (Tasnim Ahmed/Peninsula Press)

At a Nov. 4 roundtable with the Peninsula Press, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo presented a novel, and possibly controversial, idea: using empty jail cells in the Santa Clara County Jail to detain methamphetamine addicts who commit a misdemeanor.

“I’d like to see us repurposing many of these cells for detoxification and inpatient treatment…and yes that means we actually have to detain them,” he said.

The proposal is part of Liccardo’s “Compassionate San Jose” plan to addresses the city’s homelessness crisis. A memorandum presented to the city council on Sept 22 said a detention facility would serve individuals who commit minor criminal offenses, such as vandalism, while “under the influence of methamphetamine or another stimulant or psychoactive substance” and pose “a safety or crime risk that makes the person inappropriate for voluntary detention in the County’s Mission Street Recovery Center/Sobering Center.”

The memorandum also lists potential sites for such facility, including existing jails in the county. Santa Clara County Jails have 4,500 beds in total. As of Dec 3, 2021, only 2,405 of those beds are currently occupied.

According to Marcus Ismael, Liccardo’s communications’ manager, individuals arrested would be given the choice to undergo detox in the detention facility in lieu of serving jail time. Prior to their release, individuals will also receive information about further treatment options.

“The policy does not call for the arrest of meth addicts, but for the redirection of people arrested for crimes who would be ill-served in the existing structure because of their need for specialized medical care,” Ismael said.

As the jails and Sobering Center are run by Santa Clara County, this proposal would fall under the county’s, rather than the City of San Jose’s, purview.

Proper funding will also determine the success of the Mayor’s proposal. The San Jose City Council is considering allocating $500,000 of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 towards a partnership with Santa Clara County to bring the detox detention facility to fruition.

Judge Stephen Manley, who created California’s first Behavioral Health Court over two decades ago, doesn’t believe $500,000 will be enough.

“You don’t ever get to the problem when you do things on such a small scale,” said Manley, who believes that millions should be spent on providing adequate treatment options for individuals committing crimes while under the influence of drugs.

“Your money is better spent rather than incarcerating [users] and getting them some treatment,” said Chris Moore, former Chief of San Jose Police Department. “Those support mechanisms, those all cost money, but they’re much cheaper from a public policy perspective.”

Deaths caused by methamphetamine or other psychostimulant overdose has been steadily increasing over the last decade, with a 47% increase between 2019 and 2020 in Santa Clara County according to the latest data available on the California Overdose Dashboard. In 2020, the San Jose Police Department reported that 60% of its citations and arrests involved meth use or possession.

But meth consumption is not just a threat to the user. Studies have shown that meth use increases violent behavior.

“People on meth are more aggressive physically, sometimes sexually, verbally, and the current political culture at West Coast cities is not to do anything about that legally,” said Dr. Keith Humphreys, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. Humphreys also served as a member of the White House Commission on Drug Free Communities.

Moore believes that simply arresting individuals will not solve the problem.

“If you stick to the model of just arresting people, you’re not going to get anywhere. Crime is not going to go down and people who are addicted are not going to get served in the best way possible,” Moore said.

However, law enforcement agents may still need to be involved even if arrests aren’t made to ensure public safety.

“If we send a social worker out to grab somebody who is aggressive and out of control on meth, sooner or later, someone’s going to get killed. I wish we didn’t need the police to do this, but they have to in a gun-packed society with a substance that’s really tied to violence,” said Humphreys.

Liccardo’s proposal would offer law enforcement agents an alternative to placing criminal charges on users while also keeping communities safe.

However, dissenters of the proposal believe that assigning responsibility to law enforcement is the very problem with this proposal. Silicon Valley Debug, a criminal justice organization based in San Jose, has been advocating to halt this proposal from moving forward.

“Having the police involved in that proposal was my big concern. More money should be spent on programs, not detaining people,” said Rosie Chavez, a Silicon Valley Debug representative. Chavez also argues that detaining people so that they undergo detoxification would force individuals who are not ready for sobriety down a path to recovery without the resources they would need for support in the long term.

Policy makers are thus left to decide whether to prioritize protecting communities from crimes committed by meth users or ensuring users are receiving mental health and social support when they decide they need it. To do both would require a strong partnership between the city’s health and public safety departments.

Currently, the Mission Sobering Center, located just around the corner from the Main County Jail in San Jose, exists as a partial alternative to booking users who commit misdemeanors. The Sobering Center allows individuals to receive medical care while undergoing detoxification, but their stays may not exceed 24 hours.

According to Bruce Copley, the director of Santa Clara County Department of Alcohol and Drug Services, most of the individuals that the center sees are brought in by law enforcement agents. Police are given the choice to either book an individual who has committed a non-violent crime or bring the individual to the Sobering Center, where users can detoxify. Usually, law enforcement agents prefer to use the Sobering Center, and it is very rare that users choose not to stay, Copley said. Each day, the center sees about three to five users brought in by police officers.

Unlike the detention facility being proposed by Liccardo, individuals are brought to the Sobering Center voluntarily. In fact, the plan to detain individuals committing crimes for the purpose of detoxification may not be legal unless it is court ordered, in which case it would be no different from facing jail time.

“You can’t make a detox center involuntarily. I discussed this with the mayor, the only place you can hold someone involuntarily is a jail or a locked facility,” said Manley, who has met with Liccardo to discuss this proposal.

Instead, Manley believes that the city should build more voluntary detoxification sites, allowing individuals to stay longer than the 24-hour limit placed by the Mission Street Sobering Center.

While it takes nine to 24 hours to come off the high of meth, it can take far more time for the body to fully metabolize meth. Thus, longer stays would allow individuals to have access to medical resources to safely undergo the initial stages of withdrawal. For a methamphetamine addict, length of stay at a detoxification facility may vary between one day to one week, depending on factors such as severity of addiction and underlying health status. And according to Copley, there are not enough detoxification centers in San Jose to meet demands, with existing sites having waitlists for placement.

In San Francisco, a program was started earlier this year that similarly follows a total abstinence model. The entirely city-funded program provides housing, therapy, and drug and alcohol counseling to substance users as an alternative to imprisoning them. The program also serves individuals who were formerly incarcerated and is run under the Adult Probation Department.

The San Francisco-based program may serve as one solution for San Jose’s struggle to combat crime and meth use.

Right now, the vote to approve funding allocation of the city’s ARPA budget has been deferred to Jan. 15. Until then, much of this proposal for a detox detention facility remains up in the air

Additional reporting by Melissa Newcomb, Kavish Harjai, and Christopher Giles


  • Tasnim Ahmed

    Tasnim Ahmed graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology in 2017. After college, she spent a year teaching math and chemistry at the Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, England through a teaching fellowship. She is currently a fourth-year medical student at Stanford School of Medicine, where she has written for the School of Medicine blog, Scope, and strives to continue her work at the interface of journalism and medicine through Stanford Journalism. She has also completed extensive global health work in Bangladesh, where she is originally from. Her scholarly interests include global women’s and children’s health, medical education and health inequality.

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