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When Your Loved One Is Arrested: Steps to Take

A Practical Guide

The arrest of a loved one can be very upsetting but when that person has a serious mental health condition, it can feel overwhelming. Here are some steps to take to help your loved one in this situation, although it is not a substitute for professional legal advice.

1. Stay calm and offer support.

  • If your loved one calls to report that they have been arrested, encourage him/her to stay calm. Let them know that you are there to help.
  • If your loved one has not yet been transferred to the Sonoma County Jail, contact the law enforcement agency where he/she is being held to let them know that your loved one has a mental health condition and to advise them of any immediate concerns you may have. Ask about the status of your loved one, the estimated length of stay at the agency, and an approximate time of transfer of your loved one to the Sonoma County Jail. Find contact information for Sonoma County law enforcement agencies at
  • Advise your loved one that a screening will be done upon arrival at the jail, to determine whether they have any physical or mental health conditions that need attention. Encourage your loved one to be forthright and honest when responding to questions from the jail’s medical or mental health staff about their diagnoses and medications, in order to benefit from the health services offered within the jail.
  • The information obtained during screening will be used to determine where your loved one will be housed within the jail. Inmates with acute or serious mental health symptoms may be assigned to a mental health housing unit (module). If your loved one’s current mental health seems stable, he/she may be placed in a general population housing unit (module).
  • Note: Jail security and/or other custody-related circumstances may override consideration of your loved one’s need for housing in a mental health unit.
  • Once screening has been completed, your loved one will be transferred to the assigned housing module. It is after this point in time that you will have the opportunity to visit your loved one. See below for Jail visiting information.
  • Be aware that while you can provide information about your loved one to the jail staff, confidentiality laws may well prevent them from being able to share information with you about your loved one. However, you can ask your loved one to fill out a release of information form giving staff permission to talk to you about their care.
  • Think carefully about posting bail for your family member. No one wants a loved one to remain incarcerated for any length of time, as it is an unpleasant experience for them as well as the family. However, it is important to consider whether your loved one will be able to comply with the terms of bail set by the court and to appear in court when required. As hard as it may seem, jail may be a safer place for a person with serious mental illness in crisis than on the streets. In jail they will at least have shelter, food and access to medication.
  • Supporting a loved one who has a mental health condition can be challenging and stressful. Knowledge, as well as your caring and fortitude, are key to helping you to support your loved one. For information about family support groups and educational programs, contact the NAMI Sonoma County Warmline 866-960-6264.

2. Once your loved one is housed at the jail, learn what you can about his/her status.

  • Use the Sonoma County Sheriff’s online Jail Inmate Search at to get the following information (available in English or Spanish):
    • Date Booked
    • Booking Number
    • Scheduled Court Case Number, Date/Time and Court Location
    • Arresting Agency
    • Where he/she is housed
    • Instructions on how to place money in an inmate’s account
    • Instructions on how to set up a prepaid account enabling your loved to make an outgoing telephone call

3. Contact the Sonoma County Jail (707-565-1400) to let them know that your loved one has a mental health condition.

  • Provide a diagnosis (if known) and any related safety concerns you might have.
  • Download the Inmate Medication Information Form at to provide the jail medical and mental health staff with information about your loved one’s mental and physical health. Copies of this form are also available in the lobby of the Main Adult Detention Facility (MADF). See information about MADF below.
  • Add a cover letter that includes your contact information as well as your loved one’s full legal name, date of birth, booking number and housing location. Consider providing the following information about your loved one:
    • Diagnosis
    • Psychiatrist’s name and full contact information
    • Medications, by name and dosage
    • Whether a particular medication has proven to be ineffective, dangerous or cause uncomfortable side effects
    • History of recent suicide attempts/threats or other violent intentions; briefly describe and when they occurred
    • Any urgent medical conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, seizures, heart problems – and any medications prescribed
    • Medical doctor’s name and full contact information
  • Note: Jail staff are prohibited by law from giving information about an inmate’s status without their consent; however, they can receive information without the need for consent. Indicate in your cover letter whether your loved one has provided you with a written confidentiality waiver. If not, request that your loved one be asked to sign one while in jail.
  • Fax the completed form and any additional information to the Jail Mental Health Services at 707-565-1444. If you are including medical information about your loved one, also fax the form to the Jail Medical Services at 707-565-6083. Request that the form be included in your loved one’s record.
  • You may also ask your loved one’s psychiatrist to fax a completed copy of the Inmate Medication Information form to the jail. It is best to put your request to the psychiatrist in writing and then follow up with a phone call.
  • Note: The jail’s mental health and medical services staff will conduct their own assessments of your loved one’s health conditions and while they will do their best to maintain current treatment protocols, may not prescribe exactly the same medications(s).

4. Working with legal representation.

  • Why Hire a Lawyer?
    • Those who have a legal problem may not know how to resolve it. Lawyers have been specially trained in the law and our legal system. And the right lawyer can advise and assist you with your particular problem.
    • If your loved one is facing criminal charges, a lawyer can help them to understand their rights, and the strengths and weaknesses of his/her case. A lawyer knows the rules and procedures for arguing the case in court. A lawyer can make a big difference in whether or not your side of the story is successfully presented to a judge or jury.
    • Some lawyers handle a variety of legal problems; others specialize in certain areas of the law.
    • In some instances, failing to call a lawyer immediately can make the situation worse. After an arrest, for example, someone should interview the witnesses and gather evidence as soon as possible.
    • Preventive legal advice could save time, trouble and money by preventing legal problems before they arise.
  • If your loved one cannot afford a private attorney, the court may appoint a Public Defender (attorney) to defend them in court.
    • For further information, contact the Law Office of the Public Defender, 600 Administration Drive, First Floor, Room 111, Santa Rosa CA 95405; 707-565-2791.
    • Provide the assigned Public Defender (attorney) with a copy of the completed Inmate Medication Information Public Defenders are extremely busy and do not have much time for telephone calls but will appreciate written or faxed correspondence.
    • Additional information that may help the Public Defender to represent your loved one might include: prior diagnoses of mental illness or cognitive disorder, information regarding your loved one’s behavior prior to the incident leading to arrest and/or relevant stressors, prior mental health hospitalizations and/or outpatient treatment; prior successes and/or side effects of psychiatric medications and any relevant medical records, history of head injury and/or loss of consciousness, or prior military/veteran’s services treatment received
    • Keep in mind that a Public Defender is responsible for representing your loved one, not you. You can ask your loved one to sign a release that allows the attorney to share information with you. However, in the absence of signed consent, there’s little the attorney can do.
  • If your loved one is able to retain a private defense attorney, help them to look for one that is knowledgeable about assisting people with mental illness and who understands not only the law, but how to access mental health services in Sonoma County.
    • Provide the attorney with a copy of the completed Inmate Medication Information and any additional written information (as described immediately above)
    • Note: A private attorney will be more accessible than a Public Defender, but that access can be costly.
    • Make contact with the attorney. This can be a challenge as attorneys are often in court all day, so try calling early in the morning. If you can’t reach the attorney by phone, call his or her office and ask for a fax number or email address with which to communicate
    • Attend the initial court hearing. Introduce yourself to the attorney if you have not previously met. Be brief, courteous and thank the attorney. Let him/her know that you’re willing to provide any information that would be helpful.
    • Ask the attorney to consider any appropriate Sonoma County jail diversion or pre-trial release programs.

5. Court Appearances.

    • Once in custody, your family member will be assigned a court date and time (the date will be within three business days of their arrival at the jail). Remember that you can find the court date, time and location online using the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office Jail Inmate Search at
    • Felony and misdemeanor violations are heard in the Sonoma County Criminal Court, Monday through Friday. This court is located at the Hall of Justice, 600 Administration Drive, Room 1051, Santa Rosa CA 95403. Contact the Court Clerk’s Office in person or call 707-521-6500 for more informati
    • Note: If your loved one is released, he/she may still need to appear in court. If he/she is unwilling to do so, you can ask the attorney if there’s a way that the hearing can continue without his/her presence.

6. Get support; you are not alone. 

  • NAMI Sonoma County Family Support Group
    Open, at no cost to participants, this group provides a safe place to learn from the successes and challenges of other family members (parents, adult sons/daughters, spouses, partners and friends) who are supporting someone in their life with a serious mental health condition. Meeting times can be found at in our monthly calendar, including a group for Spanish speakers. Call the NAMI Sonoma County Warmline for more information at 866-960-6264.
  • Sonoma County Jail Support & Education Group at MADF
    Learn additional ways to support a loved one, while in custody or in the community, at this monthly group session offered at the Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility (MADF) on the last Thursday of every month from 6:00 to 7:30 pm, at 2777 Ventura Avenue, Santa Rosa. RSVP on a message-only line by calling: 707-565-4230.

About the Sonoma County Jail

Sonoma County Detention Facilities are managed by the Sonoma County Sheriff. There are two facilities, both located in Santa Rosa. Both have medical and licensed mental health clinicians on staff 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for routine and emergency medical and mental health needs. This includes a mental health clinician on duty in the booking area.

  1. The Main Adult Detention Facility (MADF) is located at 2777 Ventura Avenue in Santa Rosa. This is a medium-to-maximum security facility, housing both pre-trial and sentenced inmates. Visitor parking can be found at MADF and across the street at the Sheriff’s Office Headquarters. MADF utilizes designated housing units for inmates requiring medical and/or mental health monitoring and care. A designated sergeant is assigned to the mental health unit.
  2. The North County Detention Facility (NCDF) is located at 2254 Ordinance Road in Santa Rosa, adjacent to the Charles M. Schulz Airport. Visitor parking is in front of the facility on the left. Inmates housed at this facility have no history of violent charges, escapes or disciplinary behavior problems. They are given work assignments such as laundry, commissary and food services, grounds keeping, etc.
  3. Visiting hours for both MADF and NCDF can be found online at:
  4. To provide an inmate with funds, see the following guidelines:
  5. To send mail or reading materials to an inmate, see the following guidelines and restrictions:
  6. Suicide Prevention policies are in place, along with a Suicide Prevention Specialist. Observation and follow-up assessments are automatically put into place from the time an inmate is assessed at booking for anyone with very serious charges and anyone determined to be at risk.
  7. Sexual Harassment & Assault Prevention policies are in place to protect inmates from any behavior or act of a sexual nature. A toll-free hot line, operated by Verity Sonoma County Rape Crisis Center, is provided to inmates enabling to confidentially report sexual assault or harassment, as well as seek outside advocacy and counseling.

About Sonoma County Jail Mental Health Services

The Main Adult Detention Facility (MADF) staffing includes on-site mental health professionals 24/7, including a mental health clinician who is assigned to the booking area, a Mental Health Program Specialist, Suicide Prevention Specialist, Re-Entry/Discharge planner and three mental health clinicians who staff the Jail-based Competency Training program. In addition, there are volunteer-run classes and groups.

General medical and mental health services at the Sonoma County Jail are provided by the California Forensic Medical Group (CFMG). This includes mental health assessments, group and individual psychotherapy, crisis management, psychotropic medication services and competency restoration services.

At the time of booking, a mental health assessment is conducted for every new inmate and is used to determine housing assignments within the jail. Inmates with an identified mental health condition who require frequent supervision are placed in the Mental Health Module; others may be placed in a general housing module but assigned to participate in a mental health program.

MADF Mental Health programs offer a range of programming levels based on an inmate’s assessed mental health needs and conduct. The goal is to enable inmates to participate in the jail’s general educational / skills-building programs when they are ready. The mental health programs include:

  • START: A program designed for inmates with serious mental illness who are acutely ill and housed in the Mental Health Module. Designed for inmates who are not stable enough to attend group classes, the programming meets the individual where he/she is at and may include: basic socialization and communication skills, encouraging socially positive behavior and medication education. The goal is to enable the inmate to be moved to the least restrictive housing environment possible within the jail and to pave the way to move them into next-level-up programming.
  • STEPS: A small-group program designed for inmates with mental health conditions that helps them to adjust socially and may include art therapy, symptom management, Pilates, community re-entry, and moral resonation therapy (designed to promote a positive, productive identity).
  • PATHS: A 10-week program of classes designed to prepare inmates for integration into the jail’s general programming. Instructors include Mental Health staff and volunteers from Sonoma County Library, NAMI Sonoma County, Catholic Restorative Justice and other community organizations. Classes include: reading comprehension and literacy appreciation, therapeutic art, stress reduction and meditation, anger management, substance use prevention and moral resonation therapy.
  • Jail-Based Competency Treatment (JBCT):
    • Competency restoration services, historically provided at state psychiatric hospitals, are required when an inmate has been deemed incompetent to stand trial because they do not understand the charges brought against them and are unable to participate in their own defense.
    • Note: It’s important to understand that the majority of mentally ill inmates are not deemed incompetent to stand trial.
    • A competency hearing may be requested by either a judge or defense attorney. When this occurs, the court must appoint at least one psychiatrist or licensed psychologist to examine the inmate (defendant) to determine whether he or she is competent to stand trial..
    • If the defendant is found to be incompetent, a trial is temporarily suspended until the defendant regains competence and the defendant is required to undergo psychiatric treatment. In the past, due to the shortage of state psychiatric hospital beds, inmates have often waited three or more months (and longer for those with a development disability) for transfer to a state psychiatric hospital.
    • The Sonoma County Jail-Based Competency Treatment Program (JBCT) avoids a prolonged wait for transfer to a state psychiatric facility. To be eligible for the program, inmates may have no history of being a safety risk nor have a severe cognitive impairment, such as dementia or traumatic brain injury
    • The JBCT program teaches inmates key concepts such as: what happens in a court room, what it means to be on probation and the consequences of not following probation guidelines, what possible sentences by the Court can include; focuses on helping inmates to understand basic standards of rational and reasonable behavior (how to dress and conduct oneself in court); and helps inmates to understand their individual case.
    • Participation in JBCT is voluntary; the program can accommodate up to 12 inmates at a time. Participants enjoy separate housing in a dedicated unit in which they are able to enjoy much more time outside of their cell. Length of stay in the program varies (from two weeks to four or five months) or until the JBCT staff determine that the inmate has reached his/her full potential in the program. The inmate will be then re-evaluated by a psychiatrist or psychologist. If assessed competent, the inmate can expect a new court date to be set.
    • Note: It is the judge who determines if an inmate is competent to stand trial. If yes, court proceedings will be ordered. If not, the inmate may be returned to the JBCT program or ordered transferred to at state psychiatric hospital for additional psychiatric treatment.
  • Correspondence Program: For inmates who are not eligible to participate in the above programs or who find them too challenging, a series of weekly self-instructional packets are available on topics such as: cognitive behavioral therapy, anger management, communication skills, goal-setting and problem solving. Inmates meet with a mental health clinician one-on-one for support and guidance.
  • Advocacy and Counseling Program for Survivors of Rape & Sexual Abuse: Provided to inmates by Verity Sonoma County, the program offers sexual assault counseling and therapy services, in collaboration with the mental health staff.
  • Canine Intervention Program: Offered in cooperation with Bergen Canine Studies, the program offers inmates an opportunity to learn how to care for, train and be responsible for service dogs in training.

Additional Resources

Sonoma County Jail Mental Health Services 707-565-1400

Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office 707-565-2311

Sonoma County Public Defender’s Office 707-565-2791


NAMI Sonoma County (National Alliance on Mental Illness): Offers free mental health information, support, education and advocacy


Friends Outside in Sonoma County: Offers services and programs for Sonoma County jail inmates and their family members to improve their circumstances and strengthen their family relationships.

Sonoma County Bar, Lawyer Referral Service: offers half-hour consultations with an attorney who handles the types of problems being faced ($50 fee)

California Courts – “Before a Court Date”: Fact sheets for help with preparing for a court date; may not apply in every case

Consensus Project

The Consensus Project is a project of the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Information Network coordinated by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.  It is an unprecedented, national effort to help local, state, and federal policymakers and criminal justice and mental health professionals improve the response to people with mental illnesses who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

The landmark Consensus Project Report, which was written by Justice Center staff and representatives of leading criminal justice and mental health organizations, was released in June 2002. Since then, Justice Center staff working on the Consensus Project have supported the implementation of practical, flexible criminal justice/mental health strategies through on-site technical assistance; the dissemination of information about programs, research, and policy developments in the field; continued development of policy recommendations; and educational presentations.

Legal Definitions

US provides legal information in the form of Questions & Answers, Definitions, Articles, Blogs and Reporting on various subjects in the United States legal field. You can also find a free legal dictionary. 

Legal Glossary

Nolo is the nation’s oldest provider of legal information for consumers and small businesses.  This listing takes you to the Nolo glossary of legal terms.

Mental Health Courts

Mental health courts have spread rapidly across the country in the few years since their emergence. In the late 1990s only a handful of such courts were in operation; as of 2007, there were more than 175 in both large and small jurisdictions. The links on this page address a series of commonly asked questions about mental health courts.  Click here.

SAMHSA Mental Health Dictionary

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) maintains an extensive dictionary of medical and mental health terms and definitions on their website. Click Here

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