Steinberg Institute Policy Brief: California’s criminal justice system not prioritizing behavioral health programs that would keep people out of jail and reduce costs

SACRAMENTO (March 22, 2024) Today, the Steinberg Institute released Misaligned: California’s Local Public Safety Funding Doesn’t Meet Today’s Needs, a policy brief examining how California’s counties allocate state funding dedicated to reducing recidivism by funding evidence-based interventions, such as behavioral health services.

Our research found that the vast majority of California counties allocate less than 10 percent of dedicated state criminal justice funding to behavioral health. At the same time, In 2023, 53% of county inmates had mental health needs – up from approximately 20% in 2010.

A major source of funding that counties receive for their local criminal justice needs can be traced back to a major policy shift known as “2011 Public Safety Realignment”, which transferred responsibility for certain felony populations from the state to counties. In 2022-23, this amount was roughly $2 billion. In our review, we found that counties typically allocate a small fraction of realignment funding to behavioral health care. These estimates reflect allocations explicitly tagged for a behavioral health-related county department. This was the case even amidst tremendous growth in the share of county jail inmates with open mental health cases

“We know alleviating behavioral health needs reduces criminal justice involvement, so counties should be prioritizing programs that will ultimately keep people with these challenges out of our jails and in recovery,” said Steinberg Institute CEO Karen Larsen.

Also today, the Steinberg Institute released a fact sheet detailing proven criminal justice behavioral health programs that counties should be investing in.

This year, the Steinberg Institute is co-sponsoring Assembly Bill 2882, authored by Assembly Member Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), which would require more comprehensive, representative and transparent local planning around public safety spending. It would also require better reporting on this spending, including a public dashboard that tracks key measures such as recidivism rates and outcomes.

The research is part of the Steinberg Institute Vision 2030 initiative, setting ambitious goals of reducing incarceration, hospitalization and homelessness for people with behavioral health challenges by half.

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