New Times San Luis Obispo

Competency program showed promise for mentally ill inmates at SLO Jail

Chris McGuinness Mar 1, 2018 4:00 AM

A program that sent local inmates who were declared mentally incompetent to stand trial out of San Luis Obispo County for treatment showed promise, but is no longer available, according to SLO County Sheriff's Office officials.

Photo By Jayson Mellom
FINDING SOULTIONS The SLO County Sheriff's Office is considering starting a program to help inmates found mentally incompetent to stand trial after participating in a similar out-of-county program last year.

After sending those inmates to a jail in San Bernardino as part of a regional Jail Bed Competency Treatment Program (JBCT), SLO sheriff's officials said the length of time for inmates waiting for treatment placement was cut significantly. The program is no longer available, but officials are talking about creating a local JBCT program as part of a slate of reforms to change the way the jail handles care for mentally ill inmates.

"We did have success with getting [inmates] down there, restored to competency, and getting them back to court in a timely manner," SLO County Undersheriff Tim Olivas told New Times.

When someone charged with a criminal offense is found mentally unable to understand or participate in their own defense, they are ordered by the court to receive treatment until their competency is restored. In SLO County, defendants accused of felonies are sent to the Atascadero State Hospital, while misdemeanor defendants are sent to the county's psychiatric facility.

However, a lack of spaces at those facilities has resulted in lengthy waits for transfer and treatment. A May 2017 investigation by New Times discovered that many inmates deemed incompetent to stand trial were languishing in the SLO County Jail for periods as long as 122 days waiting for a transfer. That included Andrew Holland, a mentally ill inmate who died in January 2017. Records showed that, at the time of his death, Holland had been declared incompetent to stand trial and had been waiting 12 days for a transfer.

In the wake of Holland's death, the SLO County Sheriff's Office found a regional JBCT run out of the West Valley Detention Center in San Bernardino County. The jail began sending inmates to the program in June 2017, according to a report from county staff. The use of the regional JBCT program cut the average wait time from 83 days to 60 days. In some cases, Olivas said some of the waits were as short as 30 days.

"The biggest benefit was that they had beds available," he said. "It allows them to no longer linger in custody waiting for treatment."

But SLO isn't the only county having trouble finding space for inmates found incompetent to stand trial. More than 300 inmates throughout the state are waiting to get similar treatment. As other counties discovered the JBCT program in San Bernardino County, space quickly became unavailable.

"After we used it for about a month and a half, San Bernardino no longer had beds to offer," Olivas said.

While still in a preliminary discussion and planning phase, a local version of the program would be limited to SLO County inmates and would provide services and treatment within the jail so inmates wouldn't have to wait for placement in a state hospital. Olivas said the state would provide reimbursement for some costs of such a program.

"It would require additional staff ... and we would need more space if we are going to do a program like that," he said.

Consideration of a local JBCT program occurs as the jail has identified a growing number of inmates with mental health issues. Data collected as part of an expanded screening process for inmates entering the jail showed referrals for mental health services jumped more than 10 percent from December 2017 to January 2018. Δ