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SLO County renews effort at keeping those with mental illness out of county jail

The SLO County Jail.

San Luis Obispo County this week renewed participation in the Stepping Up Initiative, a nationwide initiative aimed at reducing the prevalence of inmates who suffer from mental illness from cycling through the criminal justice system. 

The board of supervisors initially adopted its Stepping Up plan in August 2017, eight months after Andrew Holland, who had schizophrenia, died at the county jail after being restrained to a chair for 46 hours before his death.

According to Sheriff Ian Parkinson, since then, there’s been major progress, such as adding a behavioral health unit at the jail and partnering with mental health providers to treat inmates who suffer from mental illness. But, he said, there’s still a long way to go.

“Understand this is a very difficult time for most," Parkinson said. "Mental health crises in the community seems to be growing over the years.”

Parkinson discussed success from increasing crisis intervention training for deputies and officers, and his goal of continuing to cycle law enforcement through that training.

Currently, state policing policy only requires law enforcement to do eight hours of crisis intervention training.

“We recognized that’s not enough," Parkinson said. "So we created a 40 hour course of law enforcement training for all of our partnered local law enforcement officers.”

One of the main goals is reducing the recidivism rate for people with mental illness. County behavioral health director, Anne Robin, said a lack of treatment-based housing creates a major barrier.

“So we continue to work with all of the housing resources," Robin said. " To see what we can do to support individuals in the housing continuum with mental health support and drug and alcohol support.”

Other goals are expanding efforts to divert mentally ill defendants away from jail through treatment and case management services, and improving the treatment of such inmates while incarcerated.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold said so far the initiative has exceeded goals and that she’s optimistic this will help the entire community. 

“If you’re somebody in this county that enjoys taking a hike on the Bob Jones Trail or going to a county park, and it's difficult for you to enjoy that because you have homeless folks and mentally ill folks and drug abuse," Arnold said. "All of those are kinds of things that people are telling us to fix, that’s exactly what we are trying to do.”

The county has measurable percentage goals they aim to meet over the next three years and at this time, no new funding was dedicated to the plan.

Angel Russell is a former KCBX News reporter who started her career in journalism as a reporter and producer for KREX on Colorado's Western Slope; she later moved to the Central Coast to work for KSBY as weekend anchor and weekday reporter. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, and playing guitar and piano.
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