CA Mental Health BILL to Provide Relief for Law Enforcement FWD

Tom Boland (
Sat, 19 Jun 1999 09:58:58 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  Thursday June 17, 1999

     Press Release

     California State Assembly


     Law Enforcement, Democrats, Republicans Join Forces to
     Rebuild Community Mental Health System

SACRAMENTO, Calif., June 17 /PRNewswire/ -- The lack of community-based
mental health services is draining law enforcement resources as peace officers
are forced to spend an increasing amount of time responding to incidents
involving the mentally ill.

As a result, police officers, sheriffs and correctional officers are often
diverted from peace-keeping activities as they are forced to assume the role
of social worker and case manager for the thousands of homeless mentally ill
who have no other means of treatment.

In fact, up to 20% of an urban beat officer's time is spent responding to
incidents involving the mentally ill. This is nearly 5 hours out of every
24-hour day that attention may be diverted from crime fighting and prevention
In addition, state and county correctional facilities are suffering
from severe overcrowding, and are often forced to release prisoners to make
room for mentally ill offenders, essentially giving criminals a ``Get Out of
Jail Free Card.''

``We need to be spending our resources fighting crimes in neighborhoods,''
said Sacramento Police Chief Arturo Venegas. ``If appropriate and adequate
mental health outreach and treatment programs were available at the community
level, police officers wouldn't be forced to struggle with the daily dilemma
of how to appropriately handle someone who may not be a criminal, but is
nevertheless engaging in criminal activity because of a mental illness.''

In an effort to ease the burden currently being placed on state and local
corrections systems by dealing with individuals with mental illnesses, law
enforcement from around the state has joined the mental health community and a
bi-partisan group of lawmakers in supporting AB 34 (Steinberg, D-Sacramento
and Baugh, R-Huntington Beach), which would rebuild the community mental
health system and end the criminalization of the mentally ill.

``Our jails have become the only safety net California offers to the
seriously mentally ill,'' said Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas. ``We would
rather not be forced to use our already strained resources to deal with
individuals who would be much better served by community mental health

AB 34 marks the first comprehensive effort to spend the necessary funds to
provide appropriate mental health services, provide relief for state and local
corrections systems, and ultimately help future state budgets when it comes to
corrections and mental health expenditures.

``It is time to fulfill the promises we made 30 years ago when
deinstitutionalization was implemented,'' said Assemblymember
Darrell Steinberg. ``By rebuilding the mental health system we can not only
provide humane treatment for those with mental illnesses, but also clean up
the streets, increase economic development in urban areas and strengthen our
local communities.

AB 34 would provide grants to counties to help rebuild the community
mental health system and end criminalization of the mentally ill. The
programs funded by AB 34 will ultimately save the state hundreds of millions
of dollars in corrections costs by treating the homeless mentally ill before
they commit crimes. The state is currently spending an estimated $1.2 to
$1.8 billion on criminal justice law enforcement dealing with people with
mental illness. An investment in mental health care, as proposed by AB 34, is
expected to eliminate most of these costs.

``The Los Angeles County Jail has become the largest de facto mental
institution in the U.S., yet this is the worst possible setting for providing
mental health care,'' said Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who
represents portions of Los Angeles. ``We should provide treatment to the
mentally ill before they get into trouble with the law. This will help those
in need while also helping to alleviate our overcrowded jails.''

As a result of the existing lack of funds for community-based programs,
more than 50,000 mentally ill live on the streets today. Even though less
than 5% of the population suffers from a severe mental illness, 10 to 20% of
incarcerated prisoners and an estimated 20 to 40% of the homeless population
have a mental illness.

When the State Department of Corrections began routinely screening inmates
for mental illness in the early 1990s, officials discovered that about 11% of
prisoners were suffering from a severe mental illness. As a result,
psychiatric care has become the fastest growing part of the Corrections
budget, with the state now spending over $400 million to house and treat
mentally ill prisoners.

``An investment in community-based mental health would allow Corrections to
avoid a substantial amount of the costs associated with mental health care,''
said Rusty Selix, Executive Director of the Mental Health Association in
California, which is sponsoring the bill. ``The effects of AB 34 also have the
potential to reduce the need for the expansion of the state prison system.''

AB 34 helps achieve many of the goals outlined during this year's budget
debate, which has centered on issues relating to health care, as well as
providing additional state funds to local governments.

``Not only will AB 34 provide for funds to expand much needed mental health
programs, but it will also give financial relief to local governments,'' said
Assembly Republican Leader Scott Baugh. ``Local law enforcement and mental
health resources have been strained for long enough. It is time to properly
fund these services so that citizens can see the benefits of their tax dollars
at work.''

Often mentally ill individuals are repeatedly arrested for minor offenses
when they really ought to be referred to a community mental health program for
treatment. Because of the lack of available programs and services, however,
police often have no other option than to take individuals with mental
illnesses to jail. In fact, mentally ill inmates serve sentences that are on
average 6.5 times longer than what other inmates for similar or lesser

``We are feeding dogs that won't hunt,'' said Don Novey, President of the
California Correctional Peace Officers Association. ``We should use our scarce
monies locking up the habitual and violent criminals. The mentally ill need
treatment, not bars.''

AB 34 has received widespread bi-partisan support from lawmakers and the
mental health community, as well as veterans, business and law enforcement.
The bill's funding provision was also approved by the Budget Conference
Committee in early June. AB 34 will now proceed to the Senate Health and
Human Services Committee, where it is expected to be heard within the next few

Co-Authors of the bill include: Joint Co-Author Senate President pro Tem
John Burton; Assemblymembers Elaine Alquist, Thomas Calderon, Gil Cedillo,
Martin Gallegos, Robert Hertzberg, Mike Honda, Hannah-Beth Jackson,
Fred Keeley, Sheila James Kuehl, Alan Lowenthal, Kerry Mazzoni, Gloria Romero,
Virginia Strom-Martin, Helen Thomson, and Carl Washington; and Senators Dede
Alpert, Joe Baca, Wes Chesbro, Patrick Johnston, Don Perata, and Hilda Solis.


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