State grant would help Santa Barbara County keep mentally ill out of jail

April Charlton
Lompoc Record
March 12, 2017

Inmates suffering from mental health issues are crowding California's prisons and jails, and Santa Barbara County is no exception.

Undersheriff Bernard Melekian said he often fields the question: How many inmates in the county's jail system suffer from some type of mental illness?

"It's really hard to count it," he answered, "but I can tell you 17 percent of the (county's jail) population are on some type of psychotropic medication, and I believe there are unquestionably more people dealing with mental health issues."

Statistics show around 30,000 inmates with some type of mental illness — ranging from clinical depression to schizophrenia — are housed among the 116,000 individuals in the state's 34 prisons. That number translates into nearly 25 percent of the adult prison population.

"Jail isn't the place to take care of the mentally ill," Melekian said. 

He said officers are called out for problems where the individual is, more times than not, dealing with a mental illness and the only recourse they have is to arrest the person for a misdemeanor crime and take him or her to jail.

"It's the only tool in the toolbox to solve the problem (right now)," Melekian added.

For nonviolent, mentally ill offenders, treatment is better offered in a setting where a wide array of resources are available to the individual, not in one that is built around incarceration, said sheriff's Lt. Rob Plastino.

"The jail is already overcrowded and those resources should be there to lock up true criminal offenders, not someone who may have acted out in a nonviolent way due to their mental illness," Plastino said.

In an attempt to create an alternative to incarceration for mentally ill individuals, the county has applied for a $3.4 million grant from the California Board of State and Community Corrections. It is competing with more than 50 other counties in the state for a cut of the $103 million in Proposition 47 funding, that would pay to start a pilot post-arrest diversion and support program in Santa Barbara.

Proposition 47

Approved by voters in November 2014, Proposition 47, also known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, reclassified certain offenses such as shoplifting, forgery, fraud, personal use of most illegal drugs, writing bad checks and receiving stolen property, from felonies to misdemeanors.

The goal was to decrease jail and prison populations, or at least save the bed space for more serious, violent offenders.

"We always want to focus on the serious and violent crimes," said Marisa Arrona, of Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit working with Californians from "all walks of life to replace prison and justice system waste with common sense solutions to create safe neighborhoods and save public dollars."

Californians for Safety and Justice backed Prop. 47.

An unintended consequence of the ballot initiative, however, is individuals with mental health issues and substance-abuse addictions are less likely to get treatment after a low-level arrest and are just as likely to re-offend when they are released from jail.

"They cycle in and out and they still don't get treatment," Arrona said. "Diversion (programs) are very helpful to get into treatment. Before Prop. 47, you had to have a felony to get into drug treatment court."

The grant would allow county leaders to implement a restorative justice pilot program to help those individuals get the treatment they need and on a path to wellness, with some help from community stakeholders as well as the state.

"You'd get to go to treatment ... and skip the roller coaster of the criminal justice system," Melekian said about the proposed pilot program, which would be a collaborative effort.

From the onset, Prop. 47 promised statewide savings that would fund rehabilitation efforts to help keep people out of jails and prisons, including programs offering mental health services, substance-abuse disorder treatment and diversion opportunities, along with housing and job-skills training.

Now two years after its passage, the state is beginning to dole out savings from the successful ballot initiative, and the county is hoping to get a piece of the pie.

If successful in obtaining the grant monies, the aim of the pilot project would be to reduce exposure to the criminal justice system by diverting individuals with severe mental illness or substance abuse disorders to trauma-informed, community-based wraparound services, said Suzanne Grimmesey, county Department of Behavioral Wellness chief quality care and strategy officer.

Treatment would be offered as an alternative to jail, and participation would be voluntary with the end goal being to help those individuals that law enforcement may encounter on a daily basis to succeed in their daily lives so they are less likely to reoffend. 

Grimmesey said a core component of the proposed program will be the ability for law enforcement to evaluate an arrestee at the scene and determine whether that person could participate in the diversion and treatment project versus being placed in traditional incarceration.

"Law enforcement can bring someone (to the program) as an alternative to jail," Grimmesey said. 

She also spoke about other forms of support the pilot program would offer, including outreach and assessment, case management and treatment as well as housing assistance to those who qualify.

"The housing is a big component," Grimmesey said. "Not everyone needs the housing ... but if you don't have the housing, you won't be able to benefit."

There would also be a new crisis stabilization unit created in Santa Barbara for treatment — housed in the former juvenile hall, a lockdown facility. A mental health unit would be created and a dedicated sheriff's deputy would be assigned to the program, Grimmesey said.

The county will know in June whether it has been awarded the state grant. 

The pilot program would begin in June and run through August 2020, if the three-year grant is obtained. Additionally, if successful, the program could be replicated in the North County, according to Grimmesey.

"We all agree this is the direction we need to go," Melekian said. "We just need some help to get there."

The county is proposing to serve 40 people per year in the South County through the program, although individuals 

arrested in the North County also would be eligible, Grimmesey said.