Perhaps nowhere is California’s mental health crisis more evident than in its criminal justice system. After decades of failure to create and fund policies that effectively help people with serious mental illnesses, many now say the jails and prisons have become the state’s default mental institutions.
Close to a third of California’s inmates have a documented serious mental illness, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
A few decades ago, fewer than half of state hospital patients came from the criminal justice system. Today more than 90 percent of them do—with more than a fifth of those individuals found incompetent to stand trial. The next largest group were tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Because their mental illness leaves them so vulnerable, inmates in that condition are often kept in solitary confinement for their own protection. But extended stays in solitary exacerbate their mental illnesses, too.
Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a state budget that includes tens of millions of dollars for mental health programs, including training law enforcement officers on crisis de-escalation. The budget would also provide one-time grants to treat young people experiencing early psychosis and $100 million for “whole person care” programs that seek to address the housing, health, mental health and substance abuse needs of people experiencing homelessness.
Judge Stephen Manley started one of the nation’s first mental health courts in Santa Clara County more than 20 years ago. In these courts, public defenders, prosecutors, judges and social service providers work together to connect people with mental illness who have been arrested for certain crimes with services and treatment, with a goal of keeping them out of jail.
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