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Treatment for Mentally Ill Offenders

by Brenda Olave Campbell
This is an editorial regarding the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act of 2013 (H.R. 401/ S. 162) and the treatment of mentally ill offenders. Santa Cruz has developed innovative programs to provide individuals diagnosed with mental illness treatment rather than incarceration; other counties can learn and implement something similar if they had the funding.
Treatment For Mentally Ill Offenders

The Los Angeles County jail, a psych ward? YUP! The LA County jail has been termed the largest mental health facility in the country with over 2,000 inmates diagnosed with a mental illness, 1,800 of those are diagnosed with a co-occurring substance use disorder. The U.S. correctional system as a whole houses more persons with mental illness than all the other systems combined, that is nearly 1.3 million people diagnosed with a mental illness who are incarcerated and are receiving little to no treatment.

Mentally ill offenders in jail cost the tax payers nearly double of what a non-mentally inmate costs due to the services and medication that is required, that adds up to nearly $26,000 a year; that is more than a brand Honda Accord! In Santa Cruz County, the budget for medication alone is in excess of $100,000 a year, almost twice the median income in Santa Cruz. As we can see, the brilliant idea of the 1950’s deinstitutionalization didn’t quite pan out; the severely mentally ill just switched places from mental hospitals, where they actually received services, to jails, where they are denied treatment and the staff is not trained to work with them. It’s obvious that something needs to change!

Lucky for us, Santa Cruz County is blazing the trail for treatment for mentally ill offenders. We are known across the state for its innovative and collaborate efforts to provide treatment to mentally ill offenders rather than incarceration while addressing the needs and safety of the community. In 2012, the Health Services Agency partnered with Santa Cruz County Probation in an effort to develop the MOST program (Maintaining On-Going Stability through Treatment). This collaboration, along with contributions from the city and the Sheriff, provided the funding for the program for three years. This is not grant money or MHSA funding; this is our local agencies recognizing a problem and putting forth all available resources to serve the community.

The MOST program has proven to reduce incarceration and recidivism for mentally ill offenders who participate in the MOST program; in the 12 months prior to MOST participation individuals banked 8,661 jail days, 12 months after joining MOST the jail days have decreased to 1,392; that is a savings of more than three quarters of a million dollars, almost enough to purchase a home in Santa Cruz. The MOST program provides wrap around services for mentally ill offenders including intensive case management, jail crisis intervention team, jail discharge planner, treatment for co-occurring disorders, and alternatives to incarceration. The program also funds a downtown outreach worker who works closely with law enforcement, security firms, and merchants to identify those displaying at risk behaviors and get them the help they need, rather than being jailed, at the same time keeping the public safe.

Every year another program’s budget gets cut, and we are continually asked to do more with less. This has to stop. There is currently legislation in Congress, Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act (H.R. 401/ S. 162) which will provide $50 million in grants made available to state, tribal and local governments to be used to develop and implement programs designed to improve the outcomes for individuals diagnosed with mental illness and involved with the criminal justice system, programs like the MOST program. Other states and counties do not have to reinvent the wheel, Santa Cruz is already showing them how it is done; they just need the money to get the wheel rolling. If this legislation is passed The Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act of 2013 will allow for these desperately needed services to remain funded and perhaps even expand over the next five years.

Being diagnosed with a mental illness is not an excuse to commit a crime or not pay for a crime committed, but it doesn’t mean that incarceration is the appropriate consequence; people should not be punished, they should be treated. Incarceration rather than treatment, in essence, is torture. In fact it is cruel and unusual punishment.

Brenda Olave Campbell, Sereena Wilks-Myrie, Douglas George, Luda Olson MSW Candidates at University of Southern California’s School of Social Work
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