Mental illness is not a crime; let’s stop criminalizing it in Santa Cruz County

The Santa Cruz Main Jail
The Santa Cruz County main jail.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Santa Cruz Main Jail is the largest mental health provider in the county. “Let that sink in,” writes Ricki Lee Stautz, a social worker and substance use counselor, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and spent time in jail in 2016. The jail is not a place for healing, she says. The environment exacerbates mental health symptoms and feeds a dangerous cycle of recidivism. She thinks Santa Cruz County can do better and explains how restorative justice and diversion programs work. The programs, many of which already exist in the county, are little known and don’t get the public or financial support they need, she says. She wants to change that.

Here is a significant fact about our jail: More than half of people inside are on prescription medication and more than 30% are taking psychotropic drugs for a diagnosed mental health condition. Among women, the number is close to 40%.

Those figures, which come from the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, tells me something: We don’t just have a criminal problem or a homeless problem in Santa Cruz County — we have a mental health crisis in our local correctional system that feeds the ongoing issues people face once outside.

Here is another fact: The Santa Cruz jail is the largest mental health provider in the county. Let that sink in.

People in jail complain of the poor conditions and the decline — not improvement — of their mental health. They talk about the long-lasting impacts living in a tiny, bare cell with no outside contact and little programming or therapy has on their emotional well-being, on their families and on and their ability to reintegrate.

They are right.

I know: I was once incarcerated in Santa Cruz. It was in 2016 and I spent some time in jail after a domestic dispute.

Although I was on medications for a mental health issue when I was arrested, I did not receive my medicine while I was incarcerated. I also did not get to see a psychiatrist for three days.

I went through withdrawal from my medications, felt hopeless and had suicidal thoughts. While mentally unstable myself, I watched women around me suffer from severe, untreated mental health problems. How could I possibly get better in such an environment, let alone clearly think and act on the charges against me? At night and often all day, women screamed for help, banged on walls and shook their beds. They were symptomatic, afraid and confused.

We all were. Even those who came in healthy often deteriorated because of the suffering and degradation they witnessed and experienced.

Let me be clear, it is not just our jail system here in Santa Cruz that is not working. This is a nationwide issue.

But I think we, here in Santa Cruz, can do better.

Ricki Lee Stautz is a social worker and substance use counselor who spent time in the Santa Cruz County Main Jail in 2016.
(Via Ricki Lee Stautz)

Today, I serve as a social worker and substance-use disorder counselor and I work alongside and partner with corrections officers. I am well aware of the efforts the sheriff’s office leadership and staff make to foster change. But it simply can’t happen effectively within the institutional system.

Corrections officers are not trained as mental health counselors or medical professionals.

Jails lack the resources it takes for staff to support and endorse healing for their clients. Our jail has more mental health clients than any other “program” or “service” in the county. But jails do not focus funding on mental health resources, and the process of “corrections” in and of itself triggers many mental health issues for people charged and incarcerated.

Today, I’m wrapping up my master’s degree in social work from San Jose State University, and my research focuses on trauma-informed care associated with correctional programming. I have a vested — and personal — interest in urging our community to invest in correctional evolution.

Here are some more important numbers: Over half of people released from jail with mental health diagnoses end up going back to jail — or recidivating. Numerous studies show that improvement in mental health post-incarceration can reduce that number significantly. Research also confirms that programs addressing root causes — rather than punishing symptoms of mental illness — reduce homelessness, endorse healing and community safety and avoid overcrowding and inefficient fund allocation.

That is why I support restorative justice-inspired initiatives. They are designed to affect positive change that decreases system involvement — rather than perpetuating cycles of incarceration — through troubleshooting fundamental needs.

So why am I telling you this?

In Santa Cruz, we have two little-known resources for jail diversion and restorative justice support: mental health diversion and behavioral health court. These programs treat the symptoms that lead to criminal justice involvement and offer healing and humane alternatives to incarceration.

The idea is straightforward: Symptoms of mental illness lead to thinking patterns, behaviors and a lack of resources that contribute to criminal behavior, and a reduction in these issues should result in less future crime.

These burgeoning programs are staffed by dedicated public servants who have several honorable missions — from reducing days of homelessness to increasing family and public safety. These missions deserve recognition, validation and funding to support them.

Unfortunately, they are not widely known by the public and therefore often go unsupported.

They should be both known and celebrated.

Case management saved me. I received significant support and can attest to its benefits and the opportunities advocacy and linkage can create. Without someone professional and knowledgeable to connect with, I could not have effectively organized my case, which was eventually and justifiably dropped. I also would not have met my post-traumatic stress disorder specialist, who offered me the tools and healing that allowed me to return to work and school. I wouldn’t have known of the domestic violence resources who advocated for me in civil court.

To be honest, without case management I would have definitely lost my home, further lost my relationships, and likely — truly — lost my mind.

A person looks at the Santa Cruz County Office of the Public Defender's Facebook page
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Our public defender is currently advocating to launch a young adult court in Santa Cruz County. This is a key component and a preventative measure to keep youth from being sucked into the cycle of incarceration. The court takes into account the needs and developmental stages of people in this age group and provides services and support, rather than punishment and negligence.

The Office of the Public Defender also provides early representation in and prior to jail and works to“off-ramp” people out of the criminal justice system, acknowledging that many of them should not have been arrested in the first place based on their mental health or social circumstances, and that incurring criminal charges will only lead to further community disenfranchisement.

Consider this: A felony charge results in huge barriers to finding sustainable employment and applying for housing, and often comes with social isolation and ostracization. These experiences wear down many folks’ self-esteem and trigger further emotional and social issues, increasing the risk of future crime and mental health symptoms.

Does that seem like a wise way to “fight crime?”

That is also why the public defender’s office has instigated the “Clean Slate” program, which supports record clearance, so people convicted of crimes can more effectively reintegrate into society.

For our collaborative justice system and programs to grow, they need community buy-in. I encourage you to research these programs and let your elected officials, including the county board of supervisors know how you feel about them. You can also follow the board’s meeting schedule.

I also urge you to support local mental health, medical and case management programs that receive referrals.

Finally, I encourage people with legal issues to reach out to the public defender’s office for help and guidance.

A collaborative courts staff member I know likes to think of everyone as “our brother, sister, parents … us.” I feel the same way.

We are all simply a few mistakes away from the courtroom.

That is why we need to act with compassion and concern.

Take it from me.

I would have never expected to land in jail, and I am eternally grateful for the people who offered their services and treated me like a person worthy of support.

Kindness and equitable treatment changed my life. It’s beyond time to make sure everyone gets that chance. Restorative justice promotes healthy lives, and I know we all want our Santa Cruz community to be healed.

Ricki Lee Stautz is a social worker and outpatient substance use disorder clinician in Santa Cruz County and is finishing a master’s degree in social work at San Jose University. She has lived in Santa Cruz her entire life and holds an associate degree from Cabrillo College and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCSC. She intends to continue advocating for policy change that supports trauma-informed and effective care and believes most of our community’s greatest issues can be resolved through data-driven programming, collaboration and compassionate care.

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