By Nadine Ono.

The serious mentally ill are booked more frequently and stay in jail significantly longer for lesser crimes than the general jail population. That’s the message Scott MacDonald delivered when he presented the findings of the Riverside County Jail Utilization Study to the Council on Mentally Ill Offenders (COMIO) meeting Wednesday in Sacramento.

Facing a court ordered cap on its jail population, Riverside County worked with CA Fwd’s Justice System Change Initiative (J-SCI) team to determine who was in its jail and why.

MacDonald, a retired Probation Chief from Santa Cruz County and CA Fwd’s J-SCI lead, outlined areas that were found in the Riverside study, but not unique to the county, that can be improved upon regarding the mentally ill and seriously mentally ill population:

  • Lack of shared data regarding the serious mentally ill and jail utilization.
  • Dearth of treatment and strategy for the seriously mental ill to reduce jail utilization.
  • Chasm between the behavioral health department and departments within the justice system.
  • Under applied strategies that work to reduce the serious mentally ill in jail.

Riverside County recently settled a lawsuit regarding the treatment of the mentally ill in its jails and is taking steps to reduce recidivism among that population. Within the last year, the Sheriff’s Department and the Behavioral Health Department have collaborated to create system of care for the mentally ill and seriously mentally ill population. The new programs have been received positively from members of both departments as well as the participating inmates.

“The vision has changed from putting people in jail to engaging and keeping people out of jail,” added Kathy Jett, J-SCI policy consultant. “And that’s success for Riverside County. So it’s about the systems and how we think about them. It’s not about the offender or the mentally ill offender’s behavior.”

“I’m thrilled by this,” said David Meyer, clinical professor and research scholar at the USC Keck School of Medicine and a COMIO member. “People who work in the criminal justice system in the various places would have told you this type of thing without being able to prove it. You proved it.”

Meyer added, “What’s really thrilling about this is the way you’re thinking about going and dealing with it. You are talking about alternatives to jail, not necessarily warm and fuzzy alternatives either, but alternatives to using the jail for which it never was intended.”

Besides Riverside County, CA Fwd’s J-SCI team is also working with El Dorado, San Bernardino and Santa Cruz counties to study their jail populations.

COMIO is a 12-member appointed council chaired by Scott Kernan, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Its mission is to “end the criminalization of individuals with mental illness by supporting proven strategies that promote early intervention, access to effective treatments, a planned re-entry and the preservation of public safety.”

MacDonald summed up what the Riverside jail study found among the mentally ill population, “The reality is that there are a lot of folks sitting in jail that shouldn’t be there, that don’t need to be there when the right interventions in the community are applied.”

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Originally posted at CA Fwd.