California bill seeks more tools to help mentally ill criminals


Nearly 30 percent of the California’s 128,000 prison inmates are diagnosed with some form of mental illness, and many are seriously ill.

County jails house other mentally ill inmates. And while they have committed crimes for which they should be incarcerated, no expert seriously argues that jails or prison are ideal places to house and treat them. Alternatives are needed.

Democratic Assemblymen Marc Levine of San Rafael, Tony Thurmond of Richmond and Evan Low of San Jose are offering a bill that could begin reversing the decades-long injustice of imprisoning mentally ill people, and instead confront the illnesses that led to the crimes.

Stanford Law School-based advocates for criminal justice reform helped draft Assembly Bill 2262, as did former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s foundation devoted to improving the care of mentally ill people.

AB 2262 would empower judges to order treatment for criminal defendants who face years in prison or jail. Because it comes at a cost and would complicate judges’ work, the bill is being held in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Prudent though that is, the issue warrants thoughtful review. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and other legislative leaders should allow the bill to proceed so it could be more fully vetted.

The bill does raise questions. It gives discretion to judges to order treatment in prison and jail, or to refer criminals to residential treatment facilities. It’s not clear that facilities exist to handle people who have committed crimes.

The measure also says people convicted of violent crimes would not qualify. But there’s a long list of crimes that most people would consider to be violent – some domestic violence and child abuse, for example – that don’t fit the Penal Code definition. That must be tightened.

In 1960, 36,853 people were locked in state hospitals, before governors dating to Ronald Reagan and young Jerry Brown and beyond presided over the emptying of state psychiatric hospitals.

That created other problems, as is evident on any street in any California city, and in California prisons, which housed 37,252 inmates who have a mental illness diagnosis as of March 30. Nearly 9,000 inmates require enhanced treatment or care in prison psych wards. Prisonlike state hospitals house thousands more people who have committed felonies but are insane.

Sacramento County is among the counties where prosecutors and defense attorneys work with mental health courts to divert some mentally ill people into programs. Much more remains to be done.

No doubt, AB 2262 needs work. But it’s a start. The notion of reducing crime, limiting recidivism and helping care for mentally ill people is worthy of legislators and a governor hoping to leave an impact for the good.