Behavioral-health and law-enforcement personnel in Santa Barbara County collaborate to divert mentally ill people from jail and the criminal justice system as a whole, but it hasn’t always been that way.
“What is happening now is that historically unprecedented levels are being required of us to collaborate with the justice system,” Behavioral Wellness Director Toni Navarro said. “Over the previous few decades, those two in funding and in practice should never meet.”
There were prohibitions in Mental Health Services Act funding and other funding that did not allow the Behavioral Wellness department to serve people experiencing severe and persistent mental illness, Navarro said.
About five years ago, there was a change in the MHSA legislation that allowed Behavioral Wellness to serve people who were justice-involved, Navarro told Noozhawk.
“That gave us new streams of money and allows us that funding to specifically focus on this population now. And we weren’t able to do that before,” she said.
“We would use the tools available to us, and oftentimes for us that would be the jail,” said Cherylynn Lee, behavioral sciences unit manager for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. “We recognize that by diverting people through treatment, we are preventing future engagements with law enforcement. We recognize that, especially with zero bail, we can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”
The county’s criminal justice departments — including the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender and Probation) have been working on system improvements for several years, including diverting people with mental health issues from jail and connecting them to treatment.
Santa Barbara County has co-response teams, which pair Behavioral Wellness clinicians with specially trained sheriff’s deputies to respond to 9-1-1 calls involving someone in a mental health crisis, and crisis intervention training for law enforcement officers.
It has an eight-hour CIT course that every law enforcement officer has to take, and a 40-hour voluntary CIT academy.
Lee, who has a doctorate in psychology, started building the CIT curriculum as a volunteer in 2015, and began teaching it in 2016. So far, the Sheriff’s Office has held five 40-hour CIT academy classes with about 20 people in each.
“Dr. Lee has put together a really robust CIT training for law enforcement, really expanding the reach of the education and awareness about mental health crisis and symptomology in (the law enforcement) field,” Navarro said. “There is kind of a wider base of knowledge that she’s providing to law enforcement,”
The Sheriff’s Office has also taught de-escalation techniques at community organizations such as CALM Santa Barbara, PATH, and the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, Lee said, adding that many local schools have asked the teams to come in and do behavioral risk assessment training there, Lee said.
The Department of Behavioral Wellness also coordinates with city law enforcement agencies, such as the Santa Barbara and the Lompoc police departments.
“For them knowing how to access our after-hours crisis line for resources or consultation is a huge help,” Navarro said. “Some people don’t necessarily need a crisis team or mental health intervention, but they need a phone number with resources that we can hand off to them. That level of collaboration and coordination is something that we are committed to increasing in our system.”
The county also has sobering centers, so police can take people who are under the influence — and people who might have mild-to-moderate mental health issues — to the center to stabilize instead of being held in jail, said John Doyel, assistant director of the Department of Behavioral Wellness.
Behavioral Wellness has a transportation system that can take someone from jail to a sobering center, something that Doyel called “revolutionary.”
If mentally ill people are arrested and being held in jail, the sheriff’s contractor WellPath conducts assessments and offers treatment within the facility.
Anyone being seen in WellPath’s program can refer themselves to mental health services at no costs, or loved ones or staff can refer someone to the services as well, said Carin Kottraba, WellPath vice president of mental health services.
According to the Public Defender’s Community Defender Division, more than 75% of clients with mental health needs were connected with services last year, and 94% of those clients appeared in court for their next scheduled date.
The county has six jail discharge planners to help people in custody re-enter society with a plan and links to resources they may need.
“We had two care coordinators, and within two weeks they had calls from everyone: the emergency departments, treatment centers, the jail,” Doyel said. Of adding more positions, he said, “I think that’s really the holy grail.”
— Jade Martinez-Pogue is a Noozhawk contributing writer.