County to Seek $2.14 Million Mental Health Grant

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

November 23, 2022

County Supervisors were asked Oct. 8 to try to land a big grant that would go far to address mental health issues from the law enforcement view.

County Behavior Health sought permission from Supervisors to apply for a $2.14 million grant from the “Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant” (JAG) program, according to a staff report. 

Teresa Pemberton, the division manager at County Behavioral Health, said in the report that the grant would “support law enforcement, drug treatment, and correctional programs, and the establishment of mental health diversion court services.”

If the County lands the grant, it would cover a 36-month period — from June 1 2023 to June 30, 2026. 

The JAG program is a federal show that provides criminal justice funding to States and local jurisdictions, according to the report.

It has three focal points — prevention and education; law enforcement; and prosecution, courts, defense and indigent defense. 

The County plans to use its grant for the latter, pouring the money into diversion court for mentally ill defendants. It’s a continuing theme at SLO County.

“This is the second State grant,” the report said, “which will braid together funding sources into a comprehensive program to comply with the Assembly Bill 1810 [passed in 2018] mandates for mental health diversion for our county. AB 1810 authorizes the court to grant pretrial diversion for defendants suffering from a mental health disorder if the court finds that the defendant’s mental disorder played a significant role in the offense.” Only county governments in California are eligible for the JAGs.

The County received one of the JAG grants in 2019 and the Probation Department has been in charge of the programs it funds. That initial grant runs out next May 30. 

If the County gets this new grant, the report said, the new funding and programs will be overseen by Behavior Health. 

“Most of the data for this project,” the report said, “is held within the Behavioral Health Department and an agreement with Probation was made that the application would reflect Behavioral Health as the lead agency.”

That may not be a bad idea to transfer responsibility over this program, as County Probation likely will soon be a little discombobulated when a project to build them a new office building on Broad Street in SLO gets started next year and takes a couple of years to finish

The County will use the new monies to continue with its Mental Health Diversion Court or MHDC. The goal of the diversion court is “to provide a pathway of diversion for those with mental health issues into treatment and community-based services, as opposed to long-term jail stays for criminal offenses.”

But some offenses won’t get the treatment option. “Individuals who commit serious criminal offenses,” Pemberton’s report said, “such as murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, and lewd and lascivious acts with a child under the age of 14 are not eligible for diversion. The program participants may have misdemeanor or felony charges/offenses.

“In addition, the program participant must meet certain criteria for mental health diagnoses, which are treatable in the community and will not pose a risk of danger to public safety if treated in the community.”

Who gets in and who chooses the participants? A Superior Court judge will have to weigh the circumstances of each defendant and decide whether the accused is eligible for diversion court. 

But once a person goes through the MHDC and avoids jail time, he or she will have lots of restrictions, including weekly court hearings and strict adherence to the rules of the program. 

“The program participant,” said the report, “must agree with all terms and conditions, including complying with mental health treatment and medication recommendations, as a condition of diversion.”

The grant has funded three full time employees — one behavior health clinician III; one behavior health specialist II; and one probation officer.

The next grant will add a licensed psychiatrist to give medical assessments of patients and prescriptions as needed; fund overnight stays in homeless shelters as needed; and if warranted transfers to residential housing.

Something called the “Community Corrections Partnership,” made up of the Chief of County Probation, County Sheriff, District Attorney, Public Defender, Health Agency Director, and a Law Enforcement Police Chief, endorsed the grant proposal. If they get the money, that same group will become the local “JAG Steering Committee.”

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