California's Mental Health Courts
Passed in 1994, California's "three strikes" law is the nation's
harshest sentencing law. Designed to imprison for life anyone who commits
three violent crimes, the law has inadvertently resulted in the incarceration
of a lot relatively harmless people, for a long time and at great public
expense. Crimes that have
earned people life sentences: Stealing a dollar in loose change from a car, breaking into a soup kitchen
to steal food, stealing a jack from the open window of a tow truck, and
even stealing two pairs of children's shoes from Ross Dress for Less.
The law is one reason that California's prison system is dangerously,
and unconstitutionally, overcrowded. More than 4,000 people in the prison
system are serving life sentences for non-violent crimes.
In 2012, with corrections costs consuming ever more of the state budget,
the voters in the state had had enough, and they approved a reform measure
that would spring many of these low-level offenders from a lifetime of
costly confinement. By August of last year, more than 1,000 inmates had
their life sentences changed and were released; recidivisim rates for
this group has also been extremely low. But further progress in the reform
effort is being stymied by one thorny problem: Nearly half of the inmates
serving time in California prisons suffer from a serious mental illness
such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. So far, judges have been reluctant
to let these folks out of their life sentences.
A new report from Stanford Law School's
Three Strikes project notes that the number of mentally ill prisoners denied relief from a life
sentence is three times larger than those without a brain disease. The
disparity largely stems from the fact that judges and juries tend to give
people with brain diseases much harsher sentences to begin with.
Once in prison, their illnesses go untreated, and the prison conditions
exacerbate their behavioral symptoms. As a result, they are at greater
risk of getting in trouble for breaking prison rules and being sanctioned
with severe disciplinary measures, including solitary confinement—a
vicious cycle that can make their symptoms even worse, getting them in
even more trouble. A long record of rule-breaking is one thing judges
consider when weighing a request to reduce a life sentence under three-strikes
reform, and a reason so many mentally ill people have been denied resentencing.
All of these factors are now driving a push in California to work harder
to ensure that people with brain diseases don't end up in the correctional
system in the first place. Led by State Senator Darrell Steinberg and
Stanford law professors who published the new report, the effort includes
a call for more investment in mental health courts that focus on treatment
rather than punishment. California currently has 40 such courts in 27
counties, and people like Steinberg think they should be expanded state-wide
thanks to their effectiveness and cost-savings.
In 2006, Santa Clara County calculated $20 million in savings from its
mental health court's success in keeping mentally ill people out of
prisons. Sacramento County saw the cost of keeping mentally ill people
out of traditional courts fall 88 percent thanks to its mental health
court. Other research has shown that the specialized courts also keep
mentally ill people from cycling back into the justice system. Mentally
ill people in Michigan's mental health courts commit new crimes at
a rate 300 percent lower than those who weren't in those courts.
But money isn't the only reason Steinberg wants to see mental health
courts expanded. He notes in the Stanford report that this new approach
"saves lives from being forsaken." He invokes the moral cost
of failing to treat sick people with compassion, and the tragedy of the
lost human potential that occurs when the only place for a person with
a brain disease today is in a prison.