By Nadine Ono.

Leaders from three California counties gathered in Riverside last month present the work they are doing to transform their justice systems using data driven-evidence, cross-system collaboration and capacity building programs. The participants were from Riverside, San Bernardino and Santa Cruz counties, the three counties that participated in CA Fwd’s Justice System Change Initiative (JSCI).

When California enacted AB 109 in response to overcrowded prisons, it shifted the burden of incarceration to the counties. But county jails were not created or equipped to hold the growing population and overcrowding moved from prisons to jails. This created budget problems and lawsuits surrounding care and treatment of those in custody. As one former county administrator said, “we can’t build ourselves out of this problem.”

It was natural that CA Fwd, which is committed to promote good governance, created JSCI to address how county governments can tackle the issue of jail overcrowding using data-driven evidence and cross-system collaboration. In the past four years, JSCI has conducted a Jail Utilization Study (JUS) in the three counties with the goal of addressing the issue of lowering their jail populations while at the same time not compromising public safety.

Riverside County was JSCI’s first partner. The team conducted the JUS and found, that on any given day, more than 40 percent of the jail population entered through the “side doors.” This means they were in jail for warrants, violations, holds and breaking rules, not laws. The study also found that individuals with mental health needs were booked more often and stayed in jail longer for lesser crimes than the general population. The study revealed areas where policy decisions and new programs could be implemented to achieve positive outcomes.

The county created the Executive Steering Committee, which includes representatives from all of the departments in the county’s criminal justice system and the Behavioral Health Department. This group meets to discuss issues and explore ways to collaborate. The county also acted upon one of the jail study recommendations by hiring a JSCI coordinator to make sure the work started by CA Fwd continues.

“What is our footprint on the jails?” said Riverside County Chief Probation Officer Mark Hake. “Are there things we can do differently in probation that would lessen the burden on all those jail bed days? That’s really where we started our work with CA Fwd.”

The Probation Department used the data to affect culture change. Under the leadership of Chief Hake, the department made both administrative and policy changes. The Bridge and COREprograms were formed to increase successful outcomes among clients. Internally, the department streamlined its processes using the Lean method to save its employees time and save the county money.

The Sheriff’s and Behavioral Health departments collaborated to provide better and more effective services to inmates with mental health needs. It starts when all inmates are screened upon entering and those will mental health needs receive mental health services by behavioral health specialists embedded in the jails. The Sheriff’s Department created a specially trained team of deputies who are assigned to the mental health units and who are familiar with the inmates. Upon release, the inmates are picked-up by the behavioral health staff, given their medication and connected to services in an effort to ensure success outside of jail.

San Bernardino County’s jail study showed some similar statistics to Riverside regarding side door entrances and individuals with mental health needs. One noticeable data point was that jail repeaters, those who returned for various reasons including new crimes, used more than five million jail bed days over a five year period.

“The information from the Jail Utilization Study showed us what issues we need to address in our community,” said San Bernardino County Undersheriff Shannon Dicus. “What we’re really doing is aligned with CA Fwd’s mission to use data-driven decision making, relationships and capacity building to make criminal justice systems across the state more efficient.”

The Sheriff’s Department took the lead in using the JSCI data and recommendations to implement changes in the county. To address the growing issue of people with mental health needs in jail, the Behavioral Health Department was invited to sit on the county’s Law and Justice Committee, a longstanding committee of county departments involved in the criminal justice system. The county hired a JSCI data analyst who will refresh the data and continue work on system change, a recommendation from the jail study.

In the jails, inmates can access classes and training to improve their success upon release, including a class that teaches parenting skills and allows supervised interaction between inmates and their children. The Sheriff has also created the S.T.A.R.T. program, a team of deputies dedicated to helping inmates create a plan to successfully reenter society and connect them to community services and resources. The Sheriff’s Department also implemented a new pilot program that allows inmates to live, receive life skills and job training and work outside of jail.

The Behavioral Health Department has collaborated with the Sheriff’s Department and Public Defender’s Office to create CTASC, a program to reduce the incarceration of individuals with mental health needs through diversion to treatment and encourage successful reentry of inmates by connecting them to services and resources.

Both counties have successfully submitted the 1115 Medi-Cal waiver, which allows for the expansion of services to those with substance abuse disorders and other needs not traditionally covered by Medi-Cal. Riverside, which began implementation in 2017, experienced an overwhelming response to its call-in center for substance abuse treatment and referrals. San Bernardino recently began its implementation to expand residential treatment and other services for its population.

In Santa Cruz County, JSCI conducted a JUS to identify what type of crimes are responsible for jail bed use. It showed high drug and alcohol-related bookings and recommended strategies to lower the use of jail in those instances including expanding us of a recovery center and developing alternatives for high need and low risk populations.

Each of California’s 58 counties are unique, but they also share some of the same problems surrounding rising jail populations, increasing involvement between people with mental health needs and the criminal justice system and tightening budgets to address these issues. Using data-driven evidence can assist counties in directing policy decisions and creating partnerships between county agencies, all while saving precious financial resources and keeping the community safe.

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Originally posted at CA Fwd.