Steinberg Institute

Op-Ed: Treat mentally ill offenders, don’t just jail them

Posted by on Sunday, April 17, 2016

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle here.

A failure to treat severe mental illness is not just a mark against our state’s humanity; it is an issue of pressing importance to the very functionality of our criminal justice system.

In the past year alone, 45 percent of California’s state prison inmates have been treated for severe mental illness.

That’s right: Nearly half of all inmates suffer from mental health trauma.

That’s why a bipartisan group of criminal justice leaders has joined with Assemblymen Marc Levine of San Rafael, Tony Thurmond of Richmond and Evan Low of San Jose, all Democrats, to propose legislation that will tackle the crisis head-on. This legislation — the Mental Health Justice Act (AB2262) — will enable our judiciary to assign nonviolent mentally ill offenders to desperately needed treatment while allowing our prison and jail personnel to focus on serious, violent criminals.

The Mental Health Justice Act works by allowing an individual with a previously diagnosed mental illness to petition the court to require mental health treatment as part of his or her sentence.

It’s common-sense humanity: Treatment of an illness should be a basic necessity for anyone who passes through the criminal justice system.

For defendants convicted of a nonserious, nonviolent crime, a judge would have the ability to sentence the defendant to a residential mental health treatment facility instead of a traditional jail or prison where they would face significant risk of further deterioration. (Of course, this would not be an option if the defendant could pose a risk of danger to public safety.)

If a defendant is convicted of a more serious crime, the sentencing judge would instead be empowered to require the defendant to be placed in a prison or jail mental health program and require that the prison or jail prepare a post-release mental health treatment plan before that individual is released.

During the past 15 years, the number of people requiring mental health treatment in prison has almost doubled, so that our jails and prisons have become California’s de facto mental hospitals.

The discretion granted to judges by the Mental Health Justice Act is a practical approach that will help ensure individuals who live with a mental illness receive the treatment they need, rather than simply being warehoused in a way that exacerbates their mental illness.

It’s more effective not only to those suffering; it’s more effective at deterring crime as well: Studies have found that individuals who participate in mental health courts and receive the treatment they need reoffend at one-third of the rate of those who do not.

From a budget perspective, mental health courts in other states have been demonstrated to save as much as $7 in costs for every $1 spent. That means more resources to focus on serious, violent criminals.

Although there are certainly not enough community-based mental health treatment services in California, and I hope this legislation helps draw additional attention and resources to the shortfall, some programs do exist and can be enlisted to help solve this problem.

The status quo is a disgrace — one that is unjust to the millions of individuals and family members who are suffering, as well as to the correctional officers who are forced to manage a crisis diverting resources away from serious criminals.

A failure to treat severe mental illness is not just a mark against our state’s humanity; it is an issue of pressing importance to the very functionality of our criminal justice system.

By passing the Mental Health Justice Act, we can begin setting a new course — one that takes a more just, more effective approach to the intersection between mental illness and criminal justice.

– Darrell Steinberg is the former state Senate president pro tem and founder of the Steinberg Institute.

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