Lawmakers Push for More Mental Health Spending

(seliaymiwell/flickr)

(seliaymiwell/flickr)

California lawmakers announced a series of budget proposals Wednesday calling for more training of law enforcement officers on how to handle people with mental illness. While lawmakers have been working on the proposals for weeks, there is renewed emphasis on them in the aftermath of a gun rampage that left seven people dead near UC Santa Barbara last weekend.

“How do we stop this before it happens?” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara).

Jackson said police officers who visited the shooter before the violence erupted failed to investigate him thoroughly and failed to recognize warning signs of mental health problems. “This is a young man whose mental illness was right out there on YouTube, right out there on Facebook, and in screeds that he posted on blogs,” Jackson said. “And yet no one did or was able to recognize the potential for violence that resulted in this mass set of murders.”

Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) says the problem continues inside the state’s jails and prisons, where nearly half the inmates suffer from mental illness. She cited incidents where mentally ill inmates were improperly pepper sprayed.

“You can be a correctional officer right out of high school,” Hancock said. “Nobody tells you about the demographics of the prison population, how to treat mentally ill people, how to de-escalate situations.”

Senate Democrats want to see more money invested in training law enforcement and prison personnel in how to deal with mentally ill offenders. It’s just one of a series of policy and budget proposals the caucus has been working on.

But now they say their efforts have taken on even greater importance after what happened in Isla Vista.

“These proposals, finalized earlier this month, are now cast under a different light than any of us had every planned,” said Darrell Steinberg, Senate president pro tem. “It’s a cruel and sad coincidence.” Steinberg also stressed that most people with mental illness are not violent.

He and his allies want to spend $132 million on efforts aimed at reducing the number of people with mental illness who are incarcerated, and lowering recidivism rates of people who are released from prison, then re-offend because they could not get proper mental health treatment.

They draw their suggestions from a report released Wednesday by the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project. It highlights how the population of mentally ill people in prison has ballooned in recent decades and outlines three key areas for change:

  1. Reform the way people with mental illness are sentenced, in part, by establishing more mental health courts that take a person’s mental health into account when judging a crime, and consider alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.
  2. Provide more meaningful treatment for the mentally ill, both while they are incarcerated and particularly, when they are released.
  3. Establish a process and criteria for humane releases. People with mental illness are denied parole more often than other offenders, according to the Stanford report. Lawmakers suggest providing more case managers and services for parolees with mental illness.

A final budget is due next month. The Senate must first get the state Assembly and the governor to agree to these proposals before they become an official line item.

They’re unlikely to face opposition from law enforcement advocates who agree with the goals of the proposals.

“We need more training and better resources,” said Craig Brown, a lobbyist with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. “We know we’ve been accumulating more and more inmates with mental illness. The Los Angeles County Jail has been saying for years that they’re the biggest mental health institution in the state.”

He says law enforcement is equally interested in reducing recidivism as lawmakers.

“We haven’t seen the details, and that’s where the devil is,” Brown said. “But nobody’s fighting over the goal.”

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