Mentally ill people in the criminal justice system are often invisible to the general public locked up, out of sight and out of mind, until something goes wrong.
As Tribune writer Patrick Pemberton reported, something is going wrong very wrong in that mentally ill people are being warehoused in county jails because there arent enough beds in state hospitals.
Here in San Luis Obispo County, mentally ill defendants who have been found incompetent to stand trial and require treatment to restore them to competency are spending months languishing in county jails, as one local defense attorney described it. His client, a woman arrested for a probation violation, waited in jail so long that a judge had no choice but to release her. Within days, she was arrested again for allegedly assaulting a friend with a porcelain bowl, causing lacerations to the womans face.
As Pemberton noted, mental health therapy and medication are offered at the SLO County Jail, but such treatment is voluntary and often refused by mentally ill inmates. Instead of receiving the treatment they need, they often are confined in isolation because of their behavior a situation that can aggravate their illnesses.
Thats an awful situation for the defendants and their families, and while we dont want to demonize mentally ill defendants, it can also be a public safety issue when they are released untreated. And we arent talking about isolated situations.
Just last week, San Luis Obispo County had 12 inmates awaiting transfer to state hospitals. If a small county like ours has a backlog of 12, imagine what the backlog must be for large counties.
What can be done?
Simply throwing money at the problem isnt the answer. According to a report by the states nonpartisan Legislative Analysts Office, state hospitals dont have the capacity or the staff to handle all patients who have been found mentally incompetent to stand trial. Those patients have a lower priority for admission; sexually violent predators and mentally disordered offenders, among others, are given higher priority.
To deal with the backlog of patients awaiting competency treatment, the Legislative Analysts Office recommended expanding a pilot program that proved successful in San Bernardino County. That county contracted with a private provider to treat mentally ill inmates who require treatment before theyre ready to stand trial. The treatment was provided at the county jail, more quickly and at less expense than at state hospitals. It had the added advantage of allowing the defendants to stay close to their support networks of family and friends.
The Legislative Analysts Office recommended expanding the program first in counties that are the biggest feeders to Atascadero and Patton state hospitals, including Los Angeles, Kern and San Diego.
That makes sense, since it would free up beds in state hospitals for defendants from smaller counties, such as San Luis Obispo.
Since the report was released, Riverside County has created a program similar to San Bernardinos, and other counties are interested.
Thats encouraging, but we suspect its going to require public outrage and political will particularly on the part of state legislators to ensure that the problem is remedied to the extent that mentally ill inmates are no longer languishing in county jails for months.
In other words, its time for us all to pay attention to a population thats been too often overlooked.