New California mental health roadmap recommends alternate routes away from incarceration

610 200 Nadine Ono

A new strategy of alternatives to incarcerating Californians with mental health needs has been released as part of the work to help counties develop more effective criminal justice systems.

After an 18-month review, the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission (MHSOAC) this month released “Together We Can: Reducing Criminal Justice Involvement for People with Mental Illness,” a roadmap to address this complex and growing issue in California.

“One of the greatest policy failures of our time was dismantling our state mental health care institutions without having adequate community-based treatment in its place,” said MHSOAC Commissioner and Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. “Our jails shouldn’t be used in place of treatment. We believe we should, and can, do better.”

The recommendations in the MHSOAC report are designed to prevent people with mental health needs from entering the criminal justice system by aligning state and county resources to develop community mental health systems. For those who are arrested, the report recommends courts and jails provide effective treatment and diversionary efforts. The report calls on state agencies to collaborate with counties on strategies to achieve these goals.

The MHSOAC recommendations include:

  • California’s mental health agencies, in partnership with law enforcement and others, should have a comprehensive prevention-focused plan to reduce the incarceration of mental health consumers in their communities.
  • The Board of State and Community Corrections should facilitate a collaborative effort with counties to identify, develop and deploy services and strategies, including universal screening for mental health needs at booking and more training for custody staff.
  • California must maximize diversion from the criminal justice system, including expanding options for restoring competency to those incompetent to stand trial.
  • The Council on Criminal Justice and Behavioral Health should fortify its efforts to support collaboration among state agencies toward prevention and diversion efforts.
  • California’s Health and Human Services Agency should reduce any barriers to make data available that would help identify service gaps.
  • California, in partnership with counties, should expand technical assistance to increase cultural competence, improve professional training, increase the use of data and evaluation and advance the dissemination of best practices

“This report represents hope, collaboration and the leveraging of opportunities to help the many Californians who are in the system inappropriately,” said MHSOAC Chair Tina Wooton. “Through strategy and coordination, we have an enormous opportunity to bring public awareness, public support and reduce the stigma of mental illness to make real transformational change.”

MHSOAC convened public hearings, community forums and site visits throughout the state to compile information from stakeholders, including consumers, law enforcement, family members, the judicial systems, county behavioral health departments and hospitals. Members of the commission also visited successful programs in other states as well as participated in statewide and national initiative on the issue.

MHSOAC oversees the implementation of the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), which was established with the passage of Proposition 63 in 2004. The Commission also is responsible for developing strategies to overcome stigma of mental illness and advising the Governor or the Legislature on mental health policy.

CA Fwd, which works with Riverside and San Bernardino Counties on justice system change, provided strategic direction and public affairs support to MHSOAC.

A jail study conducted by CA Fwd’s Justice System Change Initiative found that inmates with mental health needs are booked more frequently and stay in jail longer for lesser crimes than the general jail population. Riverside County officials testified at the San Diego Commission Hearing about their efforts to improve successful outcomes for their inmates with mental health needs.

The MHSOAC report has been sent to the Governor and all the members of the California Legislature.


Nadine Ono

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