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Davis, California

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Yolo County District Attorney’s Office discusses mental illness in the criminal justice system

The district attorney’s office met with the Yolo County Mental Health Diversion Collaboration Court Team to discuss how they are serving the community 


By MADELEINE YOUNG — city@theaggie.org 


On May 9, the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office held a virtual commons town hall meeting that discussed how to help individuals who have committed crimes as a result of mental illness. The meeting featured members from the Yolo County Mental Health Diversion (MHDIV) Collaborate Court Team. 

Current Woodland City Council Member Rich Lansburgh was one of the speakers at the meeting. Prior to serving on the council, Lansburgh served as a criminal defense attorney for Woodland and Yolo County for over 50 years following his career as a police officer. He explained why programs like MHDIV are so important for the community. 

“As a police officer and a member of the community, I have seen the devastating effects of unchecked and untreated individuals who suffer from one form of mental health disease or another,” Lansburgh said. “We see it every day in our environment as well as our professions. As a city council member, it is my duty to do what we can to help these folks get into programs that can address their individual needs, mostly because the individual will be successful and the individual will succeed in their future, but it also has a tremendous positive effect on our community. Programs like MHDIV are truly needed in order to have an impact on the individual as well as our community.” 

Mental Health Diversion Court was launched in February 2022 as a collaborative effort to solve issues that were found in Yolo County Mental Health Court (MHC) and Addiction Intervention Court (AIC). Martha Wais, Yolo County Deputy District Attorney, noted these issues largely stemmed from a lack of eligibility for residents outside of Yolo County, individuals with smaller charges and individuals who suffer from mental illnesses outside the range of what qualifies for MHC.  

“One of the first differences is the eligibility,” Wais said. “For either MHC or AIC, it has to be felony conduct, a client must have a serious mental illness — schizophrenia, schizoaffective or bipolar [disorder] — and/or substance abuse disorder. Because of the funding for those two courts, it must be a Yolo County resident for Health and Human Services to provide resources and treatment. […] We started thinking, what about that underserved population that doesn’t make these kinds of higher requirements? So Jonathan Raven, my chief deputy district attorney, and Tracey Olsen, the public defender, asked […] what do you do for … maybe someone with anxiety or depression, PTSD or maybe a less severe substance use disorder? What if the conduct was a little less severe, lower-level felonies or misdemeanors? And what if they just don’t live in Yolo County? They came up with an answer, and that answer was Mental Health Diversion Court.”

Wais, Chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven and public defender Tracie Olson, among others, proposed a grant to the Community Corrections Partnership that would provide funding for a district attorney, public defender, probation officer, clinician, case manager, peer support worker and a contract with a community-based organization for MHDIV. The grant was accepted.

Romney Sears, the case manager for MHDIV who has been working in the county for almost five years as a drug and alcohol counselor for a residential facility, shared his experiences in assisting in the program. 

“If I could use one word to describe what it’s like to be a part of this program, I would say supportive,” Sears said. “Not just for the clients but also for the staff. When we have a client that may have slipped up and we’re trying to find ways to support them, it’s great to have people that wear dual hats to where we can come up with creative ideas to address whatever the need is when the traditional way doesn’t always work. We found that being creative has worked a lot better for our court system.”

Written By: Madeleine Young — city@theaggie.org