By Jay Orr, Riverside County CEO.

In 2014, Riverside County was at a crossroads. Because of tightening budgets and lawsuits, we needed to reduce our jail population, while maintaining public safety. We had already taken steps to increase jail beds by beginning construction of the East County Detention Center in Indio. But we knew that we couldn’t build our way out of this, so we started looking for additional solutions.

As a former DA and public defender, I realized that lowering the jail population should not solely rest on the Sheriff’s Department and the Probation Department, but that we needed to change or shift the entire system. I attended a meeting CA Fwd held about the Affordable Care Act implementation and it sparked the idea that county leaders must work together improve outcomes for individuals and the community, not only with the ACA implementation, but in other areas of the county, such as the criminal justice system. This idea fit perfectly with CA Fwd’s goal of making government more accountable by working with government agencies to improve performance in public safety and related services.

We realized that this county was embarking on a monumental change. If done correctly, it will have a positive fiscal impact on the county. So, we moved methodically and covered areas of the criminal justice system that have not been studied before. We tasked Chief Probation Officer Mark Hake to lead the efforts on the county’s behalf. CA Fwd assembled their Justice System Change Initiative (J-SCI) team of subject matter experts on probation, criminal justice issue and public policy research.

We worked with CA Fwd to create an internal J-SCI Executive Steering Committee, which included representatives from each branch of the criminal justice system (Sheriff’s, Probation, Behavioral Health, DA, Public Defender and the Courts). The group, with coaching and guidance from CA Fwd’s team, are working together to change systems with the ultimate goal of lowering the jail population.

The J-SCI team conducted a jail utilization study to find out who is in jail, why they are in jail, who recidivates and why. The jail study uncovered several interesting findings. On any given day, the jail population consists of a large percentage of “side door” entrants (those who have returned on technical violations) and those awaiting trial. The study also found that the mentally ill return more often upon release and stay longer for lesser crimes. But more importantly, the study found that each department within the county’s criminal justice system could have an impact on lowering the jail population.

The jail study also made recommendations that could affect the jail population. So, with the unanimous approval from the Board of Supervisors, we got to work. Some departments started work immediately. For instance, we saw lower reentry rates from juvenile probation that occurred even before the study was released, because our probation officers were already shifting to a new way of thinking. The Probation Department also created two new programs to reduce violations, the Bridge Program, which provides guidance and educational opportunities for young offenders, and a program which allows officers to communicate with clients through texting with smartphones. Both programs are fairly new and are seeing promising results.

We are also seeing unprecedented work between our Sheriff’s Department and the Riverside University Health System’s Behavioral Health Department to provide programs that will lead to better outcomes for the mentally ill in jail. The collaborative effort includes step-down programs with behavioral health clinicians embedded in the jail, specialized training with the Sheriff’s staff to work with the mentally ill and “day rooms” for one-on-one or group therapy sessions.

The Behavioral Health Department worked with CA Fwd to become the second county in the state to apply and receive the 1115 waiver. This could have an impact on the jail population as it deals with the substance abuse and recovery and diversion of potential offenders.

Our J-SCI Executive Steering Committee is in the process of creating cross-departmental work groups, something that has never been done. These work groups are tackling the recommendations put forth in the jail study and creating new programs such as those in probation. We have made significant progress, but we still have a long road ahead. I am proud that we are being recognized throughout the state as a model for cross-system change, but mostly I am proud of the work being done to strengthen our county.

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Originally posted at CA Fwd.

Jay Orr is CEO of the County of Riverside