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JMHCP Grant Helps San Luis Obispo ‘Step Up’ to Improve Lives of People With Mental Illnesses in Jail

The Council of State Governments Justice Center Staff

San Luis Obispo, California was awarded a Justice and Mental Health Collaboration (JMHCP) grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance in 2018 to improve responses to people with mental illnesses in their local criminal justice system. The CSG Justice Center reached out to discover why the county applied for the grant and what they are doing to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in their jails.

Name: Jessica Yates
Title: Business Analyst, Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program
Name of County: San Luis Obispo, California
County Population: 283,405

Why did you apply for the JMHCP grant? 

We applied for the JMHCP grant to help San Luis Obispo build out its Stepping Up program and to reduce the number of people with serious mental illnesses in our jail. Stepping Up is one of the priorities of our County Board of Supervisors and is the umbrella that contains all of the programs, partnerships, interventions, and collaborations being built across San Luis Obispo County to benefit the population impacted by mental illness.

What is the main goal that you hope to achieve with the grant?

The main goal is restoration of these individuals so that they aren’t coming back to jail and that they are being connected to community services so they can have a better quality of life. Since we received the JMHCP grant and joined Stepping Up, we have really come together as an entire county with one goal focused on improving the quality of life for these individuals in the community.

What are some of your accomplishments since you were awarded the JMHCP grant?

We opened a behavioral health unit inside the jail last year that features specialized classrooms that are used to help individuals build their life skills as well as host counseling sessions, group therapy, and anger management classes. We provided CIT training to those deputies who work in the jails. We also launched a jail-based competency program in July that provides intensive services to anyone deemed incompetent to stand trial to restore their competency so their case can be resolved  more quickly, which has dropped the average wait for this population to get essential services from approximately 100 days to about 10 days. And we recently launched a diversion court with the goal of diverting people to community services instead of entering the criminal justice system when diversion is the appropriate response based on their needs. With the JMHCP grant, we were also able to hire a full-time person to administer the grant and another person who works part-time solely on supporting the Stepping Up initiative. One of our biggest achievements was introducing a data-sharing agreement specifically as part of the Stepping Up initiative that allows us to gather data about this population across the sheriff’s office, court, probation, and behavioral health agencies. The sharing of such information enhances our ability to better coordinate services in a collaborative approach. And we were chosen as one of 17 Stepping Up Innovator Counties in the United States for our leadership on this issue.

What does it mean to be a Stepping Up Innovator County, and why was San Luis Obispo chosen to this select group of counties?

Stepping Up Innovator Counties are at the forefront of working to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails. We are using the Stepping Up initiative’s suggested approach to collect and analyze timely data on the prevalence of people in jail who have serious mental illnesses. One of the first steps that we took was to ensure that everyone booked into jail is screened for mental illnesses. For people who are screened as potentially having a mental illness, we can further assess the individual and provide treatment and services while in the jail and ensure connections to care upon release are in place.

What do you hope to accomplish next with the JMHCP grant?

First, we have just hired a full-time Stepping Up program manager in November to further our efforts. We are also finishing a planning and implementation guide and will implement those recommendations, such as increasing the number of people who receive CIT training in San Luis Obispo and more than tripling the size of our mental health diversion court.