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Santa Barbara Co. Sheriff’s Office continues effort to reduce number of inmates with mental illness

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Santa Barbara County joined the Stepping Up Initiative in 2016 to help reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail.

The U.S. Department of Justice recognizes mental illness as a major issue among inmates. In 2015, the Stepping Up Initiative was formed to help reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail, instead connecting them with resources and treatment.

Santa Barbara County joined the Stepping Up Initiative in 2016 and local leaders meet every two months to report on relevant projects and collaborate about how to move forward.

Kevin Huddle is a Commander with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office and the Department Coordinator for the Stepping Up Initiative.

He said over the past several years, the Sheriff’s Office has worked to identify key moments when law enforcement can intercept someone experiencing a mental health crisis, divert them away from the criminal justice system and connect them with the necessary resources.

“Currently we work with behavioral wellness. They have a crisis stabilization unit. We have a sobering center. We have a psychiatric health facility that’s locked down. We work with the hospitals,” Huddle said. “We try [to] get people that have mental illness to treatment instead of going into incarceration.”

Huddle said the district attorney also does a lot of work to get people into treatment who are already incarcerated. But he said the downside of the Stepping Up Initiative is that it doesn’t provide any funding, so resources are limited.

“The problem with most counties, and ours in particular, is we don’t have a lot of mental health beds. So unfortunately we still have the most mental health patients housed in our jail which isn’t ideal but in our situation - not having enough locked beds - that’s where we’re at.”

Santa Barbara County has 16 beds available at its psychiatric health facility and 2 misdemeanor beds for those who are incompetent to stand trial at the Lompoc Champion Center. Some patients can also be held at hospitals throughout the county.

According to a 2017 special report released by the U.S. Department of Justice, a National Inmate Survey completed in 2012 showed that 37 percent of prisoners and 44 percent of jail inmates in the U.S. had been told in the past by a mental health professional that they had a mental disorder.

According to the Stepping Up Initiative website, there are about 2 million instances every year of people who have serious mental illnesses being admitted to jails across the nation.

The next Stepping Up meeting in Santa Barbara County will be held Monday July 19 at 2:30 p.m. via Zoom. The public is invited to attend.

Rachel Showalter first joined KCBX as an intern from Cal Poly in 2017. During her time in college, she anchored and reported for Mustang News at Cal Poly's radio station, KCPR. After graduating, she took her first job as a Producer at KSBY-TV. She returned to the KCBX team in October 2020, reporting daily for KCBX News until she moved to the Pacific Northwest in July of 2022. Rachel spends her off-days climbing rocks, cooking artichokes and fighting crosswords with friends.
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