Like the weather, people with serious mental illness have long been the focus of endless discussion at the highest levels of county government. Also like the weather, they have eluded easy solutions. On Tuesday, the county supervisors heard Sheriff Bill Brown deliver a presentation — “Together We Can” — on keeping people with mental illness out of the criminal justice system. The message had been crafted by a state mental-health commission to which he was appointed seven years ago by Governor Jerry Brown. Sheriff Brown said interactions between law enforcement and people with mental illness are “disruptive, dangerous, and sometimes they’re deadly.” He then turned the mic over to Ashley Mills, a researcher with the state’s Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission, who noted how those with serious mental illnesses make up 5 percent of general populations nationally but 17 percent of jailed populations. Alice Gleghorn, the county’s mental-health czar, noted that the number for Santa Barbara County Jail was closer to 50 percent.
Supervisor Peter Adam noted that the county’s mental-health department spends $135 million a year while the number of people with mental illness keeps getting bigger. Gleghorn said the county needed to divert rather than arrest so many suspects with mental illness; Brown shot back that there’s little space to divert them to. Supervisor Steve Lavagnino cautioned that mental illness is a lifelong affliction for most people and should not be regarded like high blood pressure. Supervisor Janet Wolf stressed that Brown’s deputies and jail custodians only get one day of specialty training while Los Angeles Police Department officers get four. Moreover, the Sheriff’s Office’s current training program has been kept together with “glue and baling wire,” Brown said. His department, he added, is slated for $2.5 million in cuts. According to mental-health advocates, it appears that the training program — Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) — may have been quietly rescued to the tune of $130,000. But neither Brown nor county supervisors — now engaged in a protracted kabuki dance over this year’s budget — can say so.