An innovative program to provide alternative solutions to jail for defendants with mental health issues has been approved by the Board of Supervisors.

The Giving Recovery A Chance (GRACE) program is designed to help break the criminal justice system cycle that many people with significant mental health problems find themselves in, leading to repeated spells in jail, and an inefficient use of taxpayer funds.

With a recent growth in the number of defendants being found incompetent to stand trial, and subsequently sent through a very costly process to have their competency restored, the County Attorney’s office looked at ways to address the problem.

Following discussions with the Board of Supervisors during a work session last month, it was agreed the County should hire a Mental Health Program Coordinator. This position will be responsible for coordinating mental health treatment and resources for those defendants deemed suitable for the GRACE program, as well as monitoring their progress, and making recommendations to County prosecutors on whether a case should proceed or be dismissed.

“This is not about serving as a crutch, but holding people accountable,” explained County Attorney Brian McIntyre at the Board’s regular meeting on November 19. “We want to make sure we can return them to the court system if needed, but the primary focus is making sure they are connected.”

Nine individuals have already been identified for the program, representing a total of 32 cases. The costs associated with the arrests, processing, jail time, restoration of competency, and prosecution of those people is significant, said McIntyre.

“We’re just throwing money at a problem when what these people need is a solution,” he said.

Supervisor Ann English said she strongly supported the GRACE program.

“This is a big step forward, especially for those people who are in law enforcement and for prosecutors who have a tendency to follow the law and get people through the courts,” she said. “It’s a big step to say, ‘we can play another role here’. I’m rooting for this program, which I think is the best program we’ve come up with to keep them off the treadmill.”

The Board also approved the transfer of $175,000 from the County’s General Fund Contingency to pay for unbudgeted restoration to competency expenses, following a significant increase in the number of defendants requiring treatment.

A further $50,000 will also be transferred to help pay for the GRACE program for the last six months of the fiscal year. The anticipated annual cost of the program is $100,000, to include $65,000 for the Mental Health Program Coordinator position, as well as related expenses such as travel and training. The County Attorney’s office plans to fill the coordinator position by January and believes the future cost of the program will be paid for through funds saved from keeping defendants out of the criminal justice system.