October 16, 2007

More bad news from California: Jails designated as "treatment facilities"; mental health courts vetoed

Wouldn't it be great if, instead of supporting more prisons, California's governor signed legislation authorizing mental health treatment that might reduce the need for prisons in the future?

Sadly, that's just a fantasy.

After my post yesterday about Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoing three criminal justice reform measures, an alert subscriber notified me about two other forensic treatment-related decisions in which the governor came down on the wrong side:

SB 568: Jails designated as "treatment facilities"

With state mental hospitals crammed full of civilly committed sex offenders and the like, there's no longer room to treat mentally ill defendants who are too crazy to have their day in court. So, with the backing of the state's sheriff's departments, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed emergency legislation allowing the jails to forcibly medicate defendants who are incompetent to stand trial.

As I explained in my original post on this bill back in June, some forensic psychologists are concerned about this law. Jail psychiatric services are minimal; prisoners with severe mental disorders will be denied the type of around-the-clock services in a therapeutic setting that they may need to be restored to trial competency.

California's move toward minimizing treatment services may encourage other states to do the same. foisting additional fiscal burdens onto cash-strapped county governments. It's all part of the trickle-down effect of the criminalization of the mentally ill that began in the 1970s with the defunding of community mental health programs and escalated with the prison boom of the 1980s and 1990s.

SB 851: Mental health courts nixed

Gov. Schwarzenegger also placed himself on the wrong side of the national mental health court movement by vetoing a bill that would have expanded such courts in California. In vetoing SB 851, he cited the fiscal costs, estimated by the Department of Corrections at $14 million per year. He also claimed that mental health courts would "allow people who have committed crimes to avoid punishment completely because of a mental health issue." (Never mind that defendants often find the stringent treatment requirements of such courts more onerous than just doing their time.)

Let's look at some numbers. California's prison budget this year was a whopping $10 billion. That does not include another $7.4 billion just authorized for 40,000 new prison beds, or the estimated $330 million per year in interest on those construction bonds. Indeed, California is spending so much on keeping people locked up that in five years, annual prison spending will shoot past higher education expenditures.

If my math is correct, the annual budget for the mental health courts would be only about one-tenth of one percent of this year's prison operating budget.

If Gov. Schwarzenegger was interested in reducing recidivism, as he claims, he would be willing to expend that measly sum to provide mentally ill prisoners with the treatment that might rehabilitate them and allow them to lead productive lives. Keeping the mentally ill out of prison is not only humanitarian, but would reduce the need for new prison beds, providing big cost savings to us tax-paying citizens in the future.

But that's assuming that the governor was willing to stand up to the correctional industry, the state's most powerful lobby. No California governor has done that and survived.

Hat tip to Robert Canning for alerting me to these developments.