The County of San Luis Obispo was recently named a Stepping Up Innovator County for leading the way in reducing the number of people in jail who have a mental illness.

“A key Board of Supervisors priority is to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in our jail, and we are taking steps to make this happen,” said County Administrative Officer Wade Horton.

To be named an “Innovator,” the County met three key criteria:

  1. County subject matter experts have agreed on a shared definition on what it means to be “seriously mentally ill,” which enables consistency across the continuum of care in and out of jail
  2. Every person booked into jail is screened for mental illness using a nationally validated screening tool, which allows for timely treatment by jail health staff
  3. Data is being collected on this population to monitor the effect of County efforts

The County was chosen as one of a small group of Innovator Counties who are using the Stepping Up Initiative’s suggested approach to collect and analyze timely data on the prevalence of people in their jails who have serious mental illnesses. One big step the County took was ensuring that everyone booked into jail is screened for mental illnesses.

“Early screening for mental illness upon entry to the jail is an important part of treating our patients in jail,” said Dr. Mulkerin, Chief Medical Officer for the Sheriff’s Office, who oversees health care delivery at the County Jail. “Since January 1, 2018 our nurses have used the validated tool to screen all incoming patients and then refer to our mental health team for treatment, if necessary.”

Stepping Up is a national initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails. The County of San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors adopted the Stepping Up Initiative in August 2017.

Since then, the County has taken steps to reduce the number of people in its jail who have mental illnesses, including

  1. Opening a Crisis Stabilization Unit that can serve to stabilize individuals experiencing a psychiatric crisis for up to 23 hours.
  2. Working with law enforcement to deploy two Behavioral Health Community Action Teams – one working with the Sheriff’s Office and one working with the City of San Luis Obispo Police Department – to collaborate on identifying and assisting individuals with behavioral health needs in the community.
  3. Meeting the criteria for becoming an “Innovator County.”
  4. Building a Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) within the jail as a dedicated space to provide behavioral health treatment.
  5. Starting a Jail-Based Competency Treatment (JBCT) program to treat inmate patients who are mentally ill and incompetent to stand trial, eliminating the long wait for a State hospital bed.
  6. Opening a recruitment to hire a two-year, limited-term Stepping Up Initiative project manager (expected hiring date is this summer) to help lead and focus the County’s efforts.

“We applaud the County of San Luis Obispo for its commitment to reducing the number of people with serious mental illnesses in jail,” said NACo Executive Director Matthew Chase. “County leaders have implemented cutting-edge strategies to collect and share data and connect people to treatment and services rather than incarceration. For these efforts, the County of San Luis Obispo has earned the distinct honor of being named an Innovator County.”

“The Stepping Up initiative is excited for the County of San Luis Obispo to join 14 other Innovator Counties across the country that are leading the way in establishing baseline data to track the number of people with serious mental illness in their jail,” said Risë Haneberg, deputy division director at The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, one of the founders of the Stepping Up initiative. “Collecting baseline data is a crucial first step in reducing the number of people in jail with a serious mental illness. The County of San Luis Obispo should be commended for its efforts to address this crisis and improve outcomes and reduce recidivism for this population.”

For more information, visit www.slocounty.ca.gov.