Prop. 47 can help fix prison mental health crisis

Facts are facts. And when it comes to mental illness within our criminal justice system, the facts tell a damning story – one for which we must rewrite the ending.

Proposition 47 on the Nov. 4 ballot is an important step in that process. It can help rebuild our mental health and community infrastructure by reducing waste in the very place – prisons – that has swallowed up those resources over the years.

First, those facts. Earlier this year, Stanford Law School reported that the number of mentally ill people in California prisons doubled from 2000 to 2014; currently 45 percent of prisoners have been treated for mental illness within the past year.

The study also echoed findings by the U.S. Justice Department that mentally ill inmates in state prisons serve 15 months longer than other inmates on average. Such inmates are also stuck, without treatment, in cycles of crime and incarceration. A study in Los Angeles County found that 90 percent of jail inmates who had been incarcerated two or more times had serious mental health problems.

All this adds up to an incredibly expensive and ineffective approach to both public safety and public health. So how did we arrive at this crisis?

From the 1950s through the 1970s, California passed laws to move responsibility for mental health care from large state institutions to a model of local, community-based care.

But there never was any follow-through to ensure that infrastructure was created and supported.

As local and state leaders battled over other budgets priorities, mental health beds vanished and nothing materialized at the local level. As a recent example, California cut 21 percent ($586 million) from mental health programs from 2009 to 2012 – the most in the nation – according to the National Alliance on Mental Health.

By failing to invest in local treatment and recovery options, it is, sadly, no surprise that people with mental health needs have ended up in our jails, courts and prisons.

And while there needs to be accountability for crimes, warehousing mentally ill people in our prisons – forcing them to live in crowded, violent and solitary conditions – does not address the underlying factors of their behavior. In fact, California is currently under a federal mandate to reduce prison crowding partly because of a lawsuit about inadequate mental health care.

If our goal is to change behavior, then accountability must take into account how to prevent future harm. In other words, treating mental illness is not simply a moral obligation but also a public safety strategy.

Growing consensus for such a strategy inspired us in 2004 to author the California Mental Health Services Act, a successful voter initiative that produced $7.4 billion for mental health needs and that served 400,000 Californians within its first five years.

We are awed by the impact, but 10 years later we still have far too many people with mental illness cycling in and out of our prisons and jails – and far too much taxpayer money locked in that same system.

That’s why we support Proposition 47, along with the California Psychiatric Association, some law enforcement officials, crime victims, business leaders and many others.

The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act would provide $50 million to $100 million each year for mental health and drug treatment. It would do so through reduced prison costs, specifically by categorizing six nonviolent, low-level felonies as misdemeanors (e.g., drug possession, petty shoplifting and writing a bad check) that can be addressed with county jail terms, treatment requirements and other forms of accountability.

We cannot change the troubling facts about California’s recent approach to mental health, but we can change course to create a more humane, effective justice system. Passing Proposition 47 is an important step in that direction.

Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, is the outgoing Senate president pro tem. Rusty Selix is executive director of the California Council of Community Mental Health Agencies.