A new three-year, $950,000 state grant will allow San Luis Obispo County to hire three mental health therapists to improve treatment for mentally ill criminal offenders, with the goal of breaking the cycle of repeated run-ins with the law.
Over the next three years, state and local officials will be watching the results of San Luis Obispo County’s program, which was funded by the California Board of State and Community Corrections.
San Luis Obispo was one of nine counties to get the recidivism reduction grants and state officials will use data from those programs to identify the best ways to address criminal mental health issues.
In July, the county Board of Supervisors accepted the grant, which requires a matching county contribution of $192,415 in cash and $461,881 for in-kind services through June 2018.
The cash contribution will come from Medi-Cal and in-kind services from existing county staff. The three therapists will work in different levels within the justice system: a full-time therapist at the County Jail; a half-time therapist to streamline appointment screenings and walk-in medication management for newly released offenders; and a half-time therapist at Superior Court to screen defendants with possible mental illness at pretrial hearings.
The courthouse therapist can help steer qualifying defendants, often low-level repeat offenders, to a specialized treatment court or diversion program so they move through the legal system more quickly and get their illness addressed.
“We’re trying to break the cycle of (those offenders) lingering in jail,” Superior Court CEO Susan Matherly said. “Early intervention helps and having (therapists) at the arraignment stage helps the court diagnose a problem early so that mental health doubts aren’t declared later on.”
The county already has a half-time in-court therapist who focuses on substance abuse, said Dr. Star Graber, the county’s Drug and Alcohol Services director. The new position will focus on mental health, she said, creating a team able to serve the caseload in both misdemeanor and felony courtrooms.
“What we’re trying to do is determine their level of functioning and provide a mental health diagnosis,” Graber said. “(Defendants) are going to get to know us and know the team.”
The grant pays for the positions for three years, but requires the county to continue the program for at least a fourth year without relying on increased support from the general fund. In approving the grant, county supervisors also approved increasing the Behavioral Health Department’s budget by $288,514 this fiscal year.
County Health Agency Director Jeff Hamm said the state grant allows the county to restore positions and service loads cut during the economic recession.
The county’s goal is to use the added resources to serve about 60 people annually, with the aim of having 90 percent of them demonstrating an improved quality of life, including sticking to prescribed medication, reducing impairment caused by their mental illness, housing and job stability.
Officials expect those served to suffer from moderate to severe mental illness and about half will be homeless, according to the grant application.
“Folks with mental illness who enter the justice system don’t benefit from jail time,” Hamm said. “These kinds of services have already proven to be effective.”