Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Patient dumping comes in all forms

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

After determining that Paul Weston was neither a danger to himself nor gravely mentally disabled, Sacramento County jailers released him at 11:13 p.m. Weston started walking.

He didn't hurt himself or anyone else as he wandered the streets for the next 24 hours. But Weston's release from jail without any plan or protective net is an all-too-common practice that in time could end up costing Sacramento County many millions of dollars.

ACLU lawyers last week sued Nevada over its practice of busing patients from Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital to other states. That policy places it in a special category of cold-heartedness. But patient dumping takes many forms, as Weston and his family learned.

"I think it's criminal," said his mother, Gail Erlandson, while sitting in the living room of her Curtis Park home.

Weston, 30, is the son of a physician and a mom who manages her own bipolar condition and counsels people facing similar challenges. He has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, made worse when he stops using his prescription meds and starts using street drugs.

His scraggly dark hair and beard give him a wild look, but he was calm when we met near his board and care home in south Sacramento. He is intelligent, though he muttered perhaps in response to his "inner stimuli." He wolfed down piles of French toast and meat at Original Perry's on Stockton Boulevard before I started on my second egg, and bolted up to go out for a smoke.

"I'm pretty much OK, unless I start messing with synthetic drugs, meth," he said.

Though Erlandson is devoted to her son, she has a restraining order barring him from coming to her home. She visits him instead, and took him to see the new "Star Trek" movie last week. He thought it was too violent.

She called the cops on him in 2011 when he broke a closet door in her home. He was adjudged incompetent to stand trial and spent three months in jail. She called police again last month after he smashed a window in her home and stole her husband's bicycle.

She was in court for her son's initial appearance last month, and watched as his public defender struggled to communicate with him. The lawyer finally told the judge, "I can't deal with this," and the hearing was postponed. At his next appearance on May 28, Weston told the judge "he was experiencing a lot of inner stimuli," Erlandson said.

At 11:13 that night, he walked out of the downtown jail. At that hour, he had no way to get to his room 15 miles away. He spent the last of his money buying small cigars, made his way to a patch of green in the Curtis Park neighborhood, and slept.

"I do a lot of walking," he said. "Please say I'm fine with the police officers. They treat me with respect. They've got to keep crime down."

He walked more the next day, until midnight. A little more than 24 hours after his release, he arrived at Susan Jones' front porch and curled up as if he were going to sleep there.

Jones spends lots of time on the porch of her Curtis Park home, watching tropical fish she keeps in two aquariums there. She met Weston a year ago when he was walking down her block and stopped to bum a cigarette from her.

On this night, Weston asked Jones to call the cops because he wanted to go back to jail. She called Erlandson instead. Erlandson's husband, Bruce, got out of bed and drove his stepson to his south Sacramento room.

"This is a person who needs help," Jones said. "People go to jail, and they get released, and there is no in-between."

Erlandson wrote to Sheriff Scott Jones protesting her son's haphazard release. Sheriff's Lt. Philip Massa responded in a letter explaining why Weston didn't receive help during his eight days in custody, and why jailers thought they had no choice but to release him as they did:

"Paul declined services, as is his right, stipulated by law. Because we had no legal basis to detain him and lawfully cannot force him to avail himself of other options, we are obligated then to release him from custody."

The explanation is convenient. Jailers knew Weston was ill. He was housed in the jail's psych unit. They could have given thought to his discharge, maybe called his social worker, and figured out how to get him to his room. Instead, they dumped him shortly before midnight.

The issue isn't new. Prisoner rights lawyers have been suing California over the mistreatment of mentally ill inmates since 1990. The suit has cost taxpayers billions, and has forced changes for the better. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has a finely honed "program guide" detailing how it must treat mentally ill prisoners. It states that parolees must be linked to services upon their release.

Lately, prisoner rights lawyers have been suing over health and mental health issues in Riverside, Fresno and Monterey county jails.

"It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," Sheriff Jones told Sacramento County supervisors last week, predicting a suit over jail conditions here. "We won't get any relief from the federal courts."

His fatalistic view notwithstanding, the county might avoid years of litigation if the sheriff used some common sense, showed a little humanity, and studied what other jurisdictions have done.

For the past decade, New York City has been under a court order requiring that it plan the discharge of mentally ill jail inmates, release them only during daylight hours, provide them with rides to their shelters and coordinate their release with agencies that provide services. Court monitors regularly issue 100-page reports on the city's compliance or lack of it.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg earmarked $206 million in the new budget for more mental health care. There's money to hire workers who will arrange services for inmates upon their release from jails. That ought to help.

Another Steinberg-sponsored measure, the Mental Health Services Act, generates $1 billion a year. However, the act bars use of any of the money for mentally ill people mired in the criminal justice system.

San Francisco attorney Michael Bien, one of the lead lawyers in the mental health care suits against the state and counties, called the restrictions on the use of the $1 billion "destructive." A disproportionate share of parolees who reoffend are mentally ill, he said.

"Putting aside the constitutional issue and the human rights issue, it is unwise fiscally and for public safety," Bien said.

The care of mentally ill inmates will become more of an issue for California's 58 counties. Aaron Brewer, the Sacramento sheriff's official who oversees lockups, said roughly 700 of the county's 4,500 inmates are diagnosed with mental illness; the number is growing as Gov. Jerry Brown shifts more state prisoners to county jails.

Nothing bad happened when jailers released Weston at 11:13 p.m. with no way to get from downtown to his home. But that doesn't make it right, as Sacramento County will learn if common practices don't change.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/morain.