Sonoma County joins effort to shift care of mentally ill away from jails

People with mental illness stay in jail longer than other inmates and run a higher risk of being returned, putting a costly strain on the criminal justice system.|

Sonoma County officials seeking to find ways to reduce the number of people jailed with mental illness have joined a national campaign that will highlight the issue, as well as the cost to taxpayers and communities, in a two-day summit later this month in Sacramento.

The campaign, featuring local leaders from more than 300 counties across the nation, is billed as a new bid to close gaps in health care and criminal justice that advocates say harm those with mental illness.

“We’ve got to provide really good treatment in our criminal justice system and simultaneously we’ve got to advocate for people with mental illness and make sure that health care providers are giving the care they should be,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the incoming board chairwoman.

Zane is scheduled to attend the Sacramento summit on Jan. 18 and 19. The campaign, organized by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, will offer local government officials detailed guidance for what can done to keep people with mental illness out of jail.

On average, 40 percent of the people housed in the Sonoma County jail system have some form of acute mental illness that requires medication, according to the 2015-2016 Grand Jury Report.

Federal “parity” laws require insurance companies to cover mental health care to the same degree as physical health care. But Zane said the federal government does a poor job of enforcing those laws.

As a result, residents with mental illness do not get the care, including intensive one-on-one therapy and counseling, that can often keep their conditions from deteriorating to the point where they come in contact with law enforcement.

“The county continues to pay for the failures of a private health care system that does not treat mental illness,” Zane said.

The county is on track to build a $49 million mental health wing for its main jail site in Santa Rosa, with the bulk of the money, $40 million, coming from a state grant that can only be used for corrections projects. Construction is expected to be completed by 2020.

Mendocino County voters, meanwhile, narrowly rejected a tax measure in November that would have funded construction of mental health and drug rehabilitation facilities to reduce the strain on the jail system and provide more specialized treatment for troubled inmates.

Counties across the country face the same dilemma. Each year, some 2 million people with serious mental illness are sent to jail in the United States, a rate that’s up to six times higher than that of the general public, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

When a person with mental illness lands in jail, he or she usually stays there longer than other inmates and often runs a higher risk of returning to jail after released, said Fred Osher, director of health systems and services policy for the justice center.

“It creates an enormous burden on the criminal justice system,” Osher said. Housing people with mental illness in jails does little to improve public safety nor does it improve the patient’s mental health condition, he said.

County officials who participate in the Sacramento summit will be given a road map on how to make improvements in care for their communities. Steps include collecting and reviewing data to better assess the flow in and out of jail for inmates with mental illness; assessing the county’s mental health and substance abuse services; investing in programs that keep mentally ill people out of jail; developing a plan to reduce their numbers in jail and tracking the plan’s progress.

Osher said a majority of jail inmates with mental illness have some form of substance addiction. Because of the lack of behavioral health services in many communities, the legal system often finds itself in a tough position.

“Often times people are reluctant to let go of people with mental health histories - prosecutors, judges are responding to community concern and safety issues,” Osher said.

Zane said the county spends ?$80 million a year on behavioral health programs. She called on the private sector, including health insurance companies and health care providers, to boost their investment in such care.

“Provide treatment, real treatment,” she said, “because our jails and our homeless population screams that it’s not there.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish.

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