Community Portrait: Beya Thayer
This Community Portrait is the sixth in a series highlighting individuals who are championing cross-systems collaboration and data sharing within their jurisdictions to respond to the needs of frequent utilizers of justice, health and human services systems. This interview was edited for brevity.
Ms. Beya Thayer is the Executive Director of the Yavapai Mental Health and Justice Coalition in Yavapai County, Ariz. Beya works to develop and implement strategies that lead to the long-term and sustainable involvement of county agencies, organizations and individuals within the intersections of justice and behavioral health with the goal of addressing partnership and systems change. Beya’s career has given her the opportunity to create partnerships and collaborations with diverse communities, professions and agencies throughout Arizona to affect change. Beya has a master’s degree in Social Work from Arizona State University and has worked in the social services arena for over 25 years.
Q: What brought you to your role in Yavapai County?
First and foremost, I’m a systems-level social worker, and I’m passionate about working with different agencies and multi-disciplinary players. We live in a world that relies on government and private roles, but they don’t always work in our favor. For example, a person may be sent to jail for a low-level crime only to learn more serious criminal behavior while incarcerated. These systems have great intentions, but sometimes the cogs aren’t flowing in the way that we need them to flow. I like to look at the broader view and find out where we can meet the needs of our community on a collaborative, systemic level.
Prior to this position, I worked as the justice liaison for the Arizona Medicaid Regional Behavioral Health Authority, which covers a huge area across six counties. I was the bridge between behavioral health providers and the criminal justice system, trying to initiate conversations, procedures and protocols that could benefit all parties. The justice and behavioral health systems speak completely different languages; it was great to be a liaison there.
Before I joined the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, the county’s jail was at capacity. The sheriff and jail captain were already identifying why this was happening and how they could better serve people with serious mental illnesses who were incarcerated. The Sheriff’s Office started a partnership with the public defender to determine how they could start a post-arrest diversion program for people with low-level felonies, who were eligible, but financially unable to bond out of jail, and had disclosed behavioral health concerns. The Sheriff’s Office and public defender needed the help of the behavioral health system to implement this type of program.
The sheriff worked with members of the state legislature to write a jail reentry coordination bill that included formalizing the Yavapai Justice and Mental Health Coalition and looking at the entire spectrum of incarceration prevention. The bill included support for screening all individuals upon booking, identifying those with continuing needs and connecting them to community services immediately upon release, as well as funding for a full-time position to support the Coalition. When the bill passed, the Sheriff’s Office launched the Reach Out Initiative, formalizing the screening and reentry processes, and I was hired as the executive director of the Coalition to help coordinate the initiative. I was asked to take on this role because of my history and knowledge of the Medicaid and behavioral health systems, as well as my relationships with the justice and community partners.
Q: Tell us more about the Coalition.
The Coalition is led by an Advisory Council that is chaired by the sheriff and made up of leaders throughout the justice, behavioral health and social service systems; this includes our elected county attorney, public defender, police chiefs, behavioral health leaders, the probation department, the juvenile justice director and the school system. The Coalition meets regularly and hosts quarterly meetings that are open to the public.
The Coalition started as a mechanism to report out to the community and other justice and county leaders regarding availability and progress of programs within the Sheriff’s Office, but it has evolved into a bigger role. Early on, the Advisory Council conducted a community assessment through a Sequential Intercept Mapping exercise to identify gaps in services and determine shared goals that collectively impacted multiple coalition members. As a result of this exercise, we created working groups to help address different parts of these goals. The key to our success is having multiple system stakeholders embedded in the Coalition, which allows us to strengthen partnerships, identify where a gap exists and determine appropriate, collective remedies.
Q: How does the Coalition collect data and function in Yavapai County?
The members of the Coalition serve as partners to the county’s Reach Out Initiative, which aims to identify people with mental illness and co-occurring substance use disorders at the earliest possible criminal justice intercept and link them to care. The Sheriff’s Office built a cross-system database for the Reach Out Initiative that tracks pre-arrest deflections and an individual’s mental health, substance abuse and social determinants of health needs as they move through the justice system. This data is then used in developing release coordination plans and supporting post-release treatment engagement.
The 11 law enforcement agencies across the county and their dispatchers have access to the pre-arrest portion of the database. Law enforcement also adds information to the database, inputting when a person is deflected from arrest and whether they are provided resources or intervention. This information can support law enforcement across jurisdictions to make future deflection decisions if they encounter the same person. Additionally, as data is reviewed, the Coalition can create a small “staffing” of key stakeholders if an individual is repeatedly deflected and needs increased support.
Information for the database is also collected when an individual is booked into detention and our inmate services release coordinators meet with them to screen for symptoms of mental illness and/or substance use disorders, social determinants of health needs and assess risk factors. A post-screening report is generated, which states the person’s risk level and the services the individual is willing to engage in if released. The initial appearance judge can choose to use the reports and the County Attorney’s Pre-Trial Diversion program relies on the reports to assist in determining whether a defendant may be eligible for the county attorney’s diversion opportunity. Additionally, the coordinators use the reports to develop release plans with the best connections and support ready at the time of release, which is essential in supporting high-risk community members with serious mental illness.
Our community behavioral health providers also have access to the database and utilize the screening and release coordination information (for those individuals who have completed a Release of Information form), which can be beneficial to their treatment plan. The providers input treatment engagement data into the database at 30- and 90-days post release, providing critical information in understanding program fidelity.
The Coalition has partnered with Northern Arizona University’s Center for Health Equity Research for semi-annual, third-party evaluations of the Reach Out database program. The evaluations report on the county’s recidivism statistics for specific demographics and risk levels. We use this data to understand the risks and needs of the people within our justice system, the quality of connections made upon their release and to work with our community partners to increase collaboration and service provision in a deliberate manner to reduce recidivism.
During this past legislative session, the Arizona Legislature was able to leverage the success of the Yavapai County data-sharing program and appropriated additional funds to expand jail re-entry coordination programs to other counties as well as to replicate the database for counties statewide. The Arizona Legislature appropriated $1 million to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission to oversee the database expansion project. This is exciting as it meets the needs of our counties but also allows for a complete picture of the state and comparison of similar data across counties. For example, we can compare Yavapai County to Pinal County, and further, look at services that individuals have received across counties to continue referring them to the most appropriate care.
Q: What was the driving force in getting this partnership and programming off the ground?
It takes that leadership piece. Having somebody take the lead is so important, and the power behind an elected sheriff sticking his neck out was exponential. When the sheriff showed his support and investment, everybody who played a role in the system was willing to give a little bit more.
Q: How does Yavapai County use the Data-Driven Justice Playbook to help guide these efforts?
The Sheriff’s Office really leaned on the Data-Driven Justice Playbook, because county leaders and elected officials are looking at their whole community from a big-picture perspective and the playbook is at the 30,000-foot level, so it’s attractive to county leaders. Our first responders find the Playbook is helpful because instead of telling you what your case plan and screening should look like, it provides ideas as to how to start these conversations and who should be involved.
The DDJ Playbook and the Coalition helped us create the space to talk about what we’re seeing so we could identify gaps and try something new. It’s not easy because each new project demonstrates more gaps and more barriers. The Data-Driven Justice project and Playbook are impactful as we move toward systemic policy change and reform.
Q: How else is Yavapai County supporting frequent utilizers?
Our community has a Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU), which is a 24/7 observation and stabilization center that is staffed by mental health professionals, peer support specialists and medical professionals. The CSU provides crisis assessments, counseling, medication and referrals to on-going services to anyone in crisis. The CSU opened around the same time that two different behavioral health providers launched mobile crisis teams. These teams are immediately available to respond to law enforcement, hospitals and community members. One goal of the CSU and the mobile crisis teams was to create an option for law enforcement that is easier than bringing a person to the jail. Following these developments, the service providers of the CSU and the mobile crisis teams provided the Coalition with data on clients referred to them by law enforcement. With this data, we were able to show that the number of people referred to the behavioral health crisis providers from law enforcement closely matched the decrease in jail admissions from the previous year. We could see the CSU and mobile teams were working to reduce jail admissions and improve access to care.
In addition, the Reach Out team and Yavapai County Adult Probation have partnered to coordinate release plans, including early release from jail to residential treatment for people with mental illness and/or substance use disorders. Within the first six months of this effort, the Sheriff’s Office and probation reported a reduction of 1,110 jail days. As a result, probation hired a specialized officer to work with Reach Out program participants. With the additional staff and continued coordination with the Sheriff’s Office, the Yavapai County Jail reduced 2021 jail days by 8,876 days through coordinated release to treatment for people on probation.
Q: Where does your passion for helping people involved in the criminal justice come from? What pushes you to keep going day after day?
Community members with complex conditions—in some cases relating to past trauma—rely on county and community services for support in meeting basic needs. It’s heartbreaking when their needs are not met as effectively as possible, or worse, when people wind up caught in a system that perpetuates their trauma. For instance, a call for assistance relating to a behavioral health crisis may end in an arrest, which does not address a person’s need and instead feeds a cyclical pattern. That is why I like working on the system level that takes everything into consideration. Addressing this cycle is my personal drive.
NACo would like to thank Ms. Beya Thayer for speaking with us about her and Yavapai County’s efforts. She can be reached at Beya.Thayer@yavapaiaz.gov.