Cliff Newell: ‘Stepping Up’ program helps inmates with mental illness |

Cliff Newell: ‘Stepping Up’ program helps inmates with mental illness

Today, May 16, has been declared a National Day of Action for the Stepping Up initiative. Stepping Up was launched in May 2015, to address the prevalence of people who have mental illnesses in jails and provide counties with resources to create sustainable, data-driven plans to impact this crisis.

Since Stepping Up’s launch, more than 420 counties, including Nevada County, have passed a resolution or proclamation committing to acting on this issue. Locally, collaboration between Probation, Behavioral Health, District Attorney, Public Defender, Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, Nevada County Superior Court and our Board of Supervisors has been formed to address this very important issue.

On the national Day of Action, counties are encouraged to hold events or participate in local activities to share with constituents the progress they have made toward reducing the number of people who have mental illnesses in their jails, raise public awareness and understanding of this issue, and emphasize their commitment to creating data-driven, systems-level changes to policy and practice to achieve their Stepping Up goals.

About 2 million people with serious mental illnesses are committed to county jails and state prisons across the country each year, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center. According to estimates from local behavioral health experts and medical staff at the jail there are up to 40 percent of jail population that is or should be diagnosed with a significant mental illness.

Stepping Up is a smart program that will help our community become safer and healthier going into the future.

Yet, in Nevada County and elsewhere, those broad numbers are not matched by detailed data that could help find better solutions than jail for more of those people.

To that end, Leaders in Nevada County have committed to work with Council of State Governments Justice Center program, Stepping Up, that aims to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in county jail and connect them with the service they need to keep them out of jail and ensure public safety.

Richard Cho, the national center’s director of behavioral health, said generally about 5 percent of people in the general population suffer mental illnesses, compared with at least 17 percent of people in prison. About 80 percent of those inmates are drug addicted, which is a mental illness itself, but also often derives from other underlying illnesses.

Stepping Up focuses on county jails, Cho said, because their data in many jurisdictions is not as comprehensive as that at the state prison level. Turnover is higher because of shorter sentences at the county level, but the recidivism rate for mentally ill inmates also is much higher — a situation that calls for greater access to mental health treatment. Implementing strategies to guide the mentally ill away from incarceration are already underway in Nevada County.

Our Mental Health Court program holds offenders accountable but also gives them a means to work themselves out of the “system.” The participants receive intensive supervision, case work, treatment appropriate for their illness and an opportunity to reintegrate into our community.

Stepping Up is a long-term program that begins with counties gathering specific data on the mental health of their inmate populations and tracking recidivism and other factors. Then, with the center’s help, counties can devise plans to steer more mentally ill people away from jail or prison and into treatment.

Not only the individual participants, but taxpayers and the justice system have a huge stake in the project’s success. Mentally ill inmates typically wait longer for trial or other resolutions of their cases. Coupled with the higher recidivism rates, that is a major cost driver.

Our success will only be achieved with the community’s involvement and support. Stepping Up is a smart program that will help our community become safer and healthier going into the future. More information on the Stepping Up initiative is available at

Cliff Newell is Nevada County District Attorney.

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