Politics, government and public life for Southern California

CA lawmaker pushes services for mentally ill to reduce prison and jail crowding

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People with mental illness who end up in jail for minor crimes often stay longer because there’s no place for a judge to send them for treatment.

“Many of these individuals are arrested for low-level offenses,” says Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal, who heads the California State Sheriffs Association. ”We have now become the new mental health asylums because of the closing of the state hospitals.”

Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) wants to solve that problem by expanding treatment for the mentally ill. He proposes building or contracting 2,000 residential crisis beds that offer short-term treatment, and adding 200 mental health triage counselors at community clinics and homeless shelters to help people with mental disorders get medical care, alcohol-and-drug treatment, and housing.

For people coming out of state prison, Steinberg wants to expand a program at California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that contracts with social workers to arrange treatment and housing upon an inmate’s release.

A spokesman for CDCR said 20 percent of active parolees — roughly 10,000 people — were diagnosed with mental illness while in prison. 

The Integrated Services for Mentally Ill Parolees currently provides transition support for 1,500 inmates. Steinberg would expand that to 5,000. Parolees who get that kind of help re-offend at a much lower rate than those who lacked the extra help.

Last year, 24 percent of the offenders who participated in the program committed new crimes, compared to 75 percent of parolees who didn't.

Steinberg said he’s still working on a price tag, but he believes the expansion of Medi-Cal as part of federal healthcare reform will go a long way to cover the costs. One million Californians are expected to gain coverage next year.

“We are paying already, and we are paying big time,” Steinberg said. “Our current system is a budget buster. It is also inhumane.”

The California Endowment will provide a $53 million grant to help enroll people in Medi-Cal. Half the money is slated to help people with special needs, such as the homeless, and people transitioning out of jails and prisons.

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