El Dorado County ‘Stepping Up’ for mentally ill inmates

Eric Jaramishian
Mountain Democrat

El Dorado County is making a move to reduce the number of inmates with mental illness in county jails, promoting more effective strategies for people affected by mental illness.

Taking the lead on the Stepping Up initiative is the El Dorado County Probation Department.

“We deal with a number of agencies in the county and work with them in our department, so it seemed natural that we take the lead on this,” Probation Chief Brian Richart said.

Stepping Up, a national initiative supporting individuals with behavioral issues, provides counties with resources and tools to enact change in local justice systems to address mental illness and co-occurring substance use disorders.

The vision of the initiative states, “Individuals with behavioral health concerns are met by the justice system with dignity and compassion linked to advocacy and support, and provide timely and effective treatment.”

“It is not something we pour money into or staff up for — it is a way of thinking and how we do business,” Richart explained. “It’s something for us to consider when we are thinking about how we construct our process in the jails, probation … and the way we basically manage adult justice when it comes to those who suffer from mental illness.”

The county passed a resolution in 2017 to implement Stepping Up. Richart admitted a shortage of staff and other county priorities pushed back progress on Stepping Up but that is no longer the case.

Project consultant Kevin O’Connell at a Board of Supervisors meeting April 12 said mental health diversion has been the biggest program implemented so far.

Mental health diversion involves a specialized court designed for individuals who have been arrested and have mental health issues, need treatment and other services and choose to agree to participate in the court program instead of having their case proceed in regular court.

Thirty-six individuals are currently using in this program in El Dorado County, according to O’Connell.

The specialized court follows Assembly Bill 1810, granting a defendant suffering from mental illness pre-trial diversions for crimes if a judge finds the disorder played a significant role in the crime committed.

Diversions can last up to two years.

If there is “substantial compliance” by the defendant, charges are dismissed and records of the arrest and prosecution are sealed. No restitution is ordered for the victim, no prohibitions on possessing firearms are put in place due to a felony conviction and no registration of sex offenders is required.

“They are diverted out of the (criminal justice) system as long as they comply with their court orders and treatment mandates,” O’Connell said.

Other plans for Stepping Up include an expansion of mobile crisis units through state funding, building out data infrastructure and implementing a data exchange planning project that would facilitate the exchange of information between involved agencies.

District 1 Supervisor John Hidahl, who has been involved with Stepping Up since its beginnings, questioned why jail booking data from 2019 hasn’t been updated.

“The inference from previous discussions was to get data that was meaningful to look at trends and understand if we are doing better or not,” Hidahl said. “We have a baseline in 2019 but we don’t have the data beyond that to share.”

O’Connell said COVID-19-related restrictions caused a reduction in jail bookings.

“That doesn’t mean people are better off,” O’Connel said. “COVID kind of created a puzzle for what comes next, which is why we thought it would be better to wait to report out once we better know how is the justice system adapted, how did COVID force it to adapt and how did behavioral health systems continue to evolve with that.”

According to the Stepping Up website, 37 California counties have implemented the program, including San Joaquin, Calaveras, Nevada and Sacramento.

El Dorado County data shows 29% of 5,724 jail bookings in 2019 had mental health needs.

Out of that 29% the county calculated an average jail stay of 16 days. These individuals were also rebooked on average seven times since 2017.

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