How to keep people from cycling in and out of jail? Make it easier to get services, many say

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Article written by Kelly Davis,  Caleb Lunetta . Click here to read this article on The San Diego Union Tribune website.

The 87-page study sets the foundation for a final report that is expected to provide recommendations on how the San Diego region can do a better job of diverting people from jail without impacting public safety

SAN DIEGO COUNTY —  People at risk of incarceration are struggling to access a range of services — from basic needs, like housing, to more serious needs, like treatment for addiction and mental illness.

“It appears that while there are over 1,000 service providers in the county … the majority of individuals with a history of incarceration reported facing barriers to receiving services,” researchers wrote in a study commissioned by the county and presented to the Board of Supervisors last week.

Authored by the San Diego Association of Governments, known as SANDAG, the data-heavy 87-page study sets the foundation for a final report, due in May, that is expected to provide recommendations on how the San Diego region can do a better job of diverting people from jail without impacting public safety.

The recommendations are intended to urge county supervisors to adopt programs that have been proven to work in other cities, such as a Florida initiative that aims to help homeless people who might otherwise cycle in and out of jail for low-level offenses.

The idea to do the study, part of the county’s “Safety Through Services” initiative, was first proposed by county Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer in October 2021. At the time, Lawson-Remer urged the county to stop using jails “as a first-line response to dealing with so many of our social challenges and social ills.”

Charlene Autolino, who sits on the volunteer board that has been advising SANDAG staff, spoke at a meeting Tuesday about her experience trying to get her 29-year-old son, Anthony, into a detox bed last month. The son, who has struggled with addiction and mental illness since his teens, relapsed after months of sobriety.

Autolino feared that if he did not get help, he could end up in jail or worse.

Despite nearly two decades of experience in the criminal justice field, including a career as a re-entry coordinator for the state’s Department of Adult Parole Operations, Autolino said she was at a loss when she tried to find a treatment bed for her son.

“I have a lot of experience and connections in this space,” she said. “I know how to navigate the system. What about the mothers, the grandmothers, the sisters, the aunts?”

After more than a week of trying, she was able to get her son into an outpatient treatment program, but the experience drove home the need for more detox beds. She said her son gave her permission to share his story publicly at the meeting.

“I’ve had multiple people reach out to me, going, ‘Wow, Charlene, I had no idea,’” she told the Union-Tribune Tuesday evening. “And I know the system. But it doesn’t matter how much money we have, how many facilities are opened if people can’t get into them.

“I want to see change,” she said.

San Diego County jails, like many throughout the country, have maintained lower-than-usual populations since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting some criminal justice reformers and policymakers to ask if it is time to rethink who we incarcerate and why.

“Once you’re in the criminal legal system, once that touches your life, it is very difficult. There’s no undo button,” said Wehtahnah Tucker, who sits on the same volunteer committee as Autolino and who also has years of experience working with incarcerated people.

The study focuses on roughly 12,000 people who were arrested or cited by law enforcement for certain misdemeanor offenses, but not booked into jail, between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021. Researchers found that 91 percent of all contacts were for drug-related offenses, nearly all were men and the median age was 36.

Out of the 12,000 individuals, more than three-quarters had contact with law enforcement in the year prior to the study period. More than a quarter had six or more contacts.

“The most prominent need for individuals at risk of incarceration are those related to basic needs, including having affordable housing and being able to obtain basic necessities,” the study says. Other needs included mental health and drug treatment and job training.

While the May report is expected to offer more detailed recommendations, in the interim, researchers cited several programs in other cities that have successfully diverted people from incarceration, such as the Pinellas Safe Harbor program in Pinellas County, Fla. Aimed at helping homeless people who commit low-level offenses, the program includes a 470-bed shelter with on-site services.

The study also describes a North Carolina program created to address the problem of people being jailed for failing to appear for court hearings. The program provides transportation assistance on hearing dates, offers remote court appearance options and sends automated text messages to remind people about upcoming hearings.

“These behavioral and logistical interventions supported by the data to reduce (failure-to-appear) rates are simple and low-cost relative to the financial implications and downstream consequences of unnecessary system involvement resulting from FTA charges,” the study says.

Andrea Dauber-Griffin, senior executive director with Neighborhood House Association, one of the county’s largest social services providers, who also advised SANDAG, said nonprofit organizations are struggling with high turnover and burnout. But she agreed that access to services could be easier.

“I think that, as a county, we have to do better with providing services in a way that is as low-barrier as possible,” she said. “Individuals looking for services should not have to call a provider multiple times before they can get someone on the phone, only to be told that there is a waitlist.”

Lawson-Remer told the Union-Tribune that she supports creating central locations with services, with navigators to help people connect with providers. Police could take people to the navigation centers instead of jail.

“A one-stop shop where you go in and it’s like, OK, these are all the services and we’ll sit here with you and look through different providers and stay with you while we call and see which program you can get into — and organize how you’re going to get there,” she said.

Tucker said the advisory board has made several recommendations the members hope will be incorporated into the final draft, including having behavioral health professionals conduct assessments on arrestees struggling with mental illness before they are arraigned in court to see if they qualify for services.

“So prosecutors can offer diversion instead of filing charges,” she said. “Or they can file reduced charges for individuals whose legal system involvement is driven by those needs.”

Such behavioral health assessments would be part of an “intercept” model that aims to divert a person into services, whether it be mental health care or drug treatment, instead of incarceration.

Darwin Fishman, a member of the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego and the North County Equity and Justice Coalition, said he and his fellow advisory committee members will be putting forward additional recommendations that include timelines and benchmarks with the goal of enacting sustainable alternatives to custody.

“The way the report is written, it really does lead in one direction,” Fishman said. “It leads us toward serious reforms.”