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Mental health addressed in court program: Program helps offenders be productive rather than return to jail

Jeff Shoaf said he never received applause while in a courtroom.

He did this month.

Shoaf was the second person to be called before Judge Suzanne Kingsbury in the first session of El Dorado County’s Behavioral Health Court held May 11. The program is designed to help those who suffer from mental illnesses transition into a productive public life rather than repeated instances behind bars.



Shoaf has bipolar disease. He was homeless, caught driving drunk and spent 15 days in jail. Kingsbury remarked Shoaf looked better – more weight, color and not reeking of alcohol – from the last time she saw him at the defense table.

Shoaf also had a job doing landscaping. A former lead chef for Harrah’s Lake Tahoe for 15 years, Kingsbury inquired about his desire to cook. Shoaf responded he tired of the profession (too much anxiety) but would be willing to meet Kingsbury’s goal of making three job contacts a week and possibly volunteering at the Tahoe Opportunity Project as a mentor.



“I’d like you to serve as an inspiration for other people who are struggling a little bit more than you,” Kingsbury said.

“I’m really proud with the progress that you’ve made,” the judge added.

Outside the courtroom, Shoaf found the experience beneficial.

“This one, I think, is more personable,” he said, adding “I’m doing pretty good. Better than I was.”

While a variety of agencies are involved, many credited the work of El Dorado County sheriff’s Lt. Randy Peshon, the jail commander.

Peshon guessed one-third of the jail’s population of roughly 150 inmates at a time suffer from a mental illness. They are also repeat offenders who often find themselves behind bars for relatively minor crimes such as shoplifting, petty theft, drunk in public and other low-level offenses.

“They get out of jail and within 10 days are back again,” he said.

Typically the cycle continues because a released mentally ill patient does not refill necessary prescriptions and flounders when the supervision and care of jail disappears, according to Dr. Sandra Branton, a psychologist and program manager for adult services at the El Dorado Mental Health Department.

Two years ago, Proposition 63 was passed by voters to increase funding and other resources to support mental health programs. A 1 percent income tax was levied on people who make $1 million or more to fund the Mental Health Services Act.

Peshon said a grant was awarded to El Dorado County in the amount of $113,000 to fund a full-time case manager position addressing the needs of mentally ill adults and a part-time position focusing on the needs of young adults.

The positions have yet to be officially filled.

Peshon and Branton and others said the need is there. During Tahoe’s summer months, many mentally ill homeless people camp in the woods. Other candidates are full-time residents.

“We have a lot of people attracted to our area up here,” Branton said.

Peshon said one inmate would act as if he was fixing an elevator in his cell.

“The reality is there are a lot of people requiring mental health services in South Lake Tahoe,” Peshon said. “This is one way of helping to meet that need.”

In the old model those with mental illnesses would leave jail and basically go through the same routine as other released inmates except for the help provided by mental health officials. In the Behavior Health Court, representatives from the probation department, mental health department, district attorney’s office and public defender’s office were present.

“If they stay healthy generally they’re going to stay out of trouble,” Assistant District Attorney Hans Uthe said.

Help is given to those who do not pose a public danger, Public Defender Rick Meyer stressed.

In addition, those who plead not guilty by reason of insanity to their crimes are not eligible.

“We want to screen these people very carefully,” Meyer said.

About 12 adults and six young adults will go initially go through the Behavioral Health Court process on a voluntary basis.

“They have want to do it and participate in it,” said Diana Hankins, an advocate with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It’s not something they’ll be told to do.”

Denman Patterson was in court earlier this month wanting to get a drunk in public fine addressed. Kingsbury said she would revoke the fine if Patterson, who suffers from schizophrenia, volunteers 16 hours a week at the Tahoe Opportunity Project.

He left the courtroom pleased.

Anita Powell was the first person called by Kingsbury. Powell was a shoplifter and living in her car for several years.

Besides traffic tickets in Contra Costa County, Powell said she would like help trimming down $25,000 in interest from child support payments. For the traffic tickets, Kingsbury said she’d try to arrange for a court date in Contra Costa County. For the child support payments, she scheduled Powell to return in two weeks when a child support attorney will be present.

Powell also received applause.

“Let’s give Anita a hand,” Kingsbury said in leading the praise. “You should be proud of your progress. Thanks Anita.”

Peshon was also pleased.

“I thought it went great,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s going to serve this community well and it certainly couldn’t have happened without everybody’s help and willingness to try something new.”

The program

The first session of El Dorado County’s first Behavioral Health Court was conducted earlier this month.

Eligibility requirements are:

— Demonstrate that mental illness is a contributing factor in the criminal activity that brought them to the attention of the criminal justice system

— Can benefit from mental health treatment

— Are eligible for probation

— Are able to appreciate the consequences of the legal proceedings and the agreement he or she is making with the court

— Have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness as defined in the Welfare and Institutions Code 5600.3

— Are 17 years of age or older

— Are deemed at risk of re-offending without appropriate mental health treatment

— Are an El Dorado County resident or intend to remain in the country for the length of the probation order

— Enter a guilty or no contest plea in Behavioral Health Court unless unusual circumstances exist

Goals of the program are:

— Fewer days spent in custody

— Fewer repeat offenders

— Increase number of days in school, work, workability or involvement in mental health groups and programs

Source: Policy and Procedure draft for El Dorado County Behavioral Health Court


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