Sobering Station: A Brief History

Continuing analysis of excessive drinking in San José and its effects on police practices and statistics...

Did you ever wonder why Santa Clara County closed its Sobering Station?

The shuttering of the Sobering Station is seen by many as a key reason for the seemingly high number of public intoxication arrests made in San José.

Arrest is the only option currently available for police when dealing with an individual who is drunk enough to be a threat to the safety of others.

In July of 2009, the City Council accepted a recommendation from the City Manager’s Public Intoxication Task Force that SJPD not arrest an individual for being drunk in public until their sixth offense in a 12-month span.  And though the Council also accepted a recommendation that the City examine opening a new sobering station, there remains no option for how to handle these individuals the first five times they’re stopped by police in a 12-month span.

The following are excerpts from reports by the County Chief of Corrections on the history — and closing — of the Sobering Station (emphasis mine):

History

The first Sobering Station contract was implemented in December of 1995, as part of a mutual agreement between the City of San Jose and the County of Santa Clara to create an alternative to booking individuals arrested for public inebriation (PC 647f).  The City of San Jose paid for the program until the contract expired in June 1997.  The County assumed financial responsibility of the program in July 1997.

The (SCC Department of Corrections) DOC conducted an intensive RFP process and ultimately awarded the new contract to Center for Training and Careers (CTC), effective July 1, 1997, through June 30, 2002...  Reluctantly, the DOC decided to discontinue the Sobering Station Program as part of its budget reduction plan.  However, upon further discussions with the CTC and City Police Departments, it was determined that alternative funding sources may be available... in order to phase out the County's financial support of the Sobering Station by the end of Fiscal Year 2003.  This would result in a savings of $296,000 to the General Fund and will be part of the DOC’s future budget reduction plan...

Usage

When the County assumed financial responsibility of the Sobering Station Program in July 1997, CTC reported that they served a combined total of more than 7,500 clients during Fiscal Years 1998 and 1999.  The County and CTC were optimistic that usage would continue to increase.

However, despite consistent efforts of CTC, statistics show that usage continues to decline each year.  Usage during Fiscal Year 2002 was at a low 1,952.  The 1,952 intakes in Fiscal Year 2002 equates to 5 people per day at a cost of $260 per intake at the Sobering Station. The DOC believes that the actual number of DOC intakes would be fewer than 1,952 because 1,078 were repeat offenders. The DOC could absorb the clients from the Sobering Station within its current budget...

Admittance Policy

Admission to the Sobering Station can only be initiated by a law enforcement officer.  Clients are free to leave at any time.  Admission to the Sobering Station is limited to space available;  a maximum capacity of 18 beds (15 male/3 female) during peak hours (10 p.m. to 5 a.m.), and 12 beds during non-peak hours. A minimum staffing ratio of 1-6 is maintained at all times.

Each individual shall be limited to five (5) admissions.  After the fifth admission, the arresting agency will be notified that the client is no longer eligible and must be booked into the DOC...

Cost

CTC's statistics show that 75% of all eligible clients picked up for Penal Code 647(f) − “public inebriation” — are currently delivered to the DOC (by participating law enforcement agencies).  The remaining 25% are delivered to the Sobering Station.  If the Sobering Station Program is discontinued, these additional 25% inebriants would also be delivered to the DOC.

Individuals brought to the DOC (Elmwood or Correction Center for Women) would have the added benefit from medical and mental health services while they are in the facility.

Many of the individuals booked into the DOC would remain in custody where they would have access to several programs designed to help inmates recognize and cope with their addictions.  Current housing costs at Elmwood and the Correctional Center for Women are $70.27 and $86.60 per day respectively, compared to CTC costs of $260 per day that could be absorbed in the DOC’s current budget with no negative impact on the General Fund.

The program ended in 2003 after the State started reimbursing cities for their arrests booking fees.  Detained individuals taken to the Sobering Station are not booked, therefore there is no reimbursement of fees from the state.

Sources

Reports on Department of Correction’s Sobering Station program to Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Justice Committee:

Ed Rast is a statistical guru and neighborhood leader. His opinions are his alone and do not necessarily represent those of any group or organization of which he is a member.

Comments

Was never a great alternative

During my experience as an SJPD officer, I can tell you that it was extremely rare that had in custody a person who was eligible to be taken to the sobering station. In the vast majority of instances, the person in custody was either a repeat offender (not eligible)or was uncooperative or aggressive (again, not eligible). In manny instances, the arrestee was an unrepentant drunk who had pretty much given up on life.

In particular, I remember a couple of standout cases who were so reliably drunk you could set your watch to it. They seemed to run on a two-day cycle: get arrested and booked for 647f, get released a few hours later, and then spend a day or so getting back to more-or-less the same location as they were arrested in the first place and get arrested shortly after. When I worked in those districts, you could pretty much count on arresting those guys twice a week, because they would harrass customers at businesses nearby for money, cuss them out when customers refused to give them a handout and then have the customer or business owner call and complain about that person. In those areas, many times, the trespassing program wasn't effective and the customer or business owner didn't want to be a victim of a disturbance and so the only alternative to solve the problem (for at least a few hours) was to arrest the person for public drunkenness. I remember one stand-out shift in which one of these drunks got booked at the beginning of my shift, sobered up enough to be released from jail, started walking back toward my district from jail, managed to get drunk all over again, start a disturbance, and get arrested for 647f - all in less than 10 hours.

I'm the first person to admit that the present system is pretty dysfunctional - if for no other reason than the cost to taxpayers that dealing with this sort of recidivism creates. However, the sobering station was never a practical answer then, and it isn't now. And, I'm pretty sure that the City Council's direction won't be very effective either, for a variety of reasons.

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The sobering station was a good alternative for those who were cooperative. If a drunk is cooperative the chances are he/she will not go to jail anyways. It is those who are out of control that end up going to jail. The sobering station was a theoretically a good idea that wasn't very practical. It also had major officer safety issues. We were required to disarm our self prior to entering the Sobering Station with our prisoner and the only staff at the Sobering Station was recovering alcoholics. No corrections officers. As we all know drunks can quickly go sideways. All in all, jail was the better alternative.

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The sobering station itself was a great quick alternative for persons who were:
a. cooperative
b. had a drinking problem and wanted/needed assistance

It was not a good idea for:
a. replacing custody and care of obviously intoxicated persons who could not care for themselves and/or exercise good judgment.
b. absolve our obligation to protect the public from persons who were intoxicated. (yes, even if that meant protecting them from themselves.)

The main issue as time went on, was that the only persons who could utilize the services the sobering station had to offer, were more commonly the chronic drunk and or homeless.

Persons who were intoxicated and drew enough attention to themselves by their actions, either with a 911 call or on-view arrest, were almost always automatically taken to jail. As officers became aware of the sobering stations policies and procedures, we could use our best judgment when the person in custody was even going to make it past their screening.

Also, as time went on, officers would call ahead to determine if the chronic drunks were at the 5th times a charm level yet.

In my opinion, the city council does not and cannot fully understand or put a limit on the number of arrests because each one is unique in itself. All that did was create a perceived barrier in which officers, found a way to circumvent even the option of the sobering station and making a direct booking. Those included and most often were the use of "buzz word" questions in the field to determine the persons intent to cooperate.

The legal aspect is one for the courts to weigh in on, however, one has ot consider how you arrest a person for 647(f), let them go per 849(b), the if there is and issue "re-arrest" them and transport them to a hold facility, when the circumstances of the law were one of ability to care for oneself in the first place??

Reply to New Sobering Station Information

Anonymous Thank you for your new information about the sobering station having the authority to a)order an officer back to re-take the offender into custody, b)walk-aways and c) legal / liability issues which is new to me and would assume for most people in San Jose

We were aware that behavior was a disqualification for the sobering station but it did not fully explain why 75% of all eligible clients for sobering station were taken by police officers directly to DOC

In your (or others with experience) opinion, is the:
a) sobering station with issues you brought forth or
b) the Council approved recommendation that SJPD not arrest an individual for being drunk in public until their sixth offense in a 12-month span

going to be effective or legal / liability solutions to excessive public drinking or related arrests in San Jose?

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Ed- Great historical article. However, there were some points you probably did not know:

1.There were specific guidelines regarding the behavior of the individual. If he was uncooperative, threatening, too boisterous, or refused to obey rules of the sobering station he could be denied admittance.

2.The staff at the sobering station had the authority to order an officer back to re-take the offender into custody at any time the subject became agitated or disobeyed the rules of the station. (A costly effect and drain on resources combined with an officer safety concern, with an aggressive person requiring a minimum two unit response)

3."walk-aways" This was a big issue. Due to the fact the person was taken there after being arrested, he/she were in-fact set free per PC 849(b)to the staff at the sobering station. If the person decided to leave, we in effect had an intoxicated, possibly agitated person in and around a secure area nearest the courthouse, judges parking, and police fleet area.

4.The issues of arresting and 849(b), and then re-arresting at a later time caused a huge concern in legal circles. If probable cause was developed in the first place and an arrest was appropriate, is there a legal obligation, requirement, or liability, if one is set-free then subjected to a possible re-arrest at a later time for the same offense he/she was set free for hours earlier?

I am sure you can see there were more issues than just a "financial" one.

Keep up the great investigative work!