Part Two: Behind Bars, Mental Health in Humboldt County

EUREKA – Local law enforcement is not only dealing with crime but an even deeper issue; mental illness. Is there a solution to this growing problem impacting the criminal justice system?

“A lot of times the reason they’re out there committing that crime might be attributed to their mental illness that isn’t being treated when they’re on the outside,” says Humboldt County Sheriff’s Officer Administrative Sergeant, Dennis Griffin.

As the issue of mental illness continues to grow in the community so does the desire to find an effective solution for those in need.

“We’ve had an increase in acuity in mental health issues in our population in recent years, both in the jail and folks that are not associated with the jail,” says Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services Senior Program Manager, Mark Lamers.

Where inmates have access to mental health support while incarcerated, re-entering the community can be different story.

“The area of deficiency historically has been when they get out of custody, when they transition from custody to the community,” says Humboldt County Sheriff’s Officer Lieutenant Duane Christian.

Humboldt County Chief Probation Officer, Bill Damiano, is responsible for a new community project, called Sequential Intercept Mapping, which will look at how the correct community support could help change the lives of those struggling with mental illness.

“The sequential intercept mapping is really about getting all our local stakeholders together to take a look at what our processes are around dealing with mentally ill offenders in the criminal justice system,” says Damiano.

“We’ll be able to look at the whole flow of all the processes of those with mental health issues go through with all of our systems. Not only with the jail but probation, mental health hospitals, housing, veterans, substance abuse treatment; to try and figure out how to provide the most beneficial services to folks with mental health issues so that we can divert them out of the correctional system,” says Lamers.

“Ideally folks would not end up in the criminal justice system,” says Damiano.

Come January law enforcement, jail representatives, behavioral health services, and many other departments in the community will come together for a two day workshop.  They’ll look at the process of dealing with mentally ill offenders throughout the justice system, from before the arrest to post-incarnation. The hope is to be able to provide enough support in the community to prevent them from entering or re-entering the criminal justice system.

“Hopefully the community will be able to identify areas where we can develop new interventions or new programs that can divert people away at an earlier stage in the process. I think that a lot of the system partners recognize it’s more humane to deal with people in social services setting opposed to a justice setting. The justice system isn’t really designed to deal with mental health issues,” says Damiano.

While it’s a step in the right direction, it’s a process only time will tell if the new potential programs will have a positive impact in the community.

“Essentially our interest is in helping to restore people’s lives, rehabilitate people,” says Damiano.

“What I think as a community and as a criminal justice system that we can do better is identifying the difference between the two; between the crime and the mental illness and taking steps to have the rest of the criminal justice system, as far as probation, jail and stuff, move towards helping them with their mental illness. So I think the more that we do that, the more stuff in the community we have to build them up and improve their everyday life I think the less the jail will be a mental health facility, “ says Christian.

These changes are not just confined to corrections; the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office just announced mental health workers will be added to their crisis negotiation team. All of these updates are an effort to help bring mental health support to where it’s needed most.