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Bill would require more mental health screening for some state convicts

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A state legislative bill that would require judges in certain cases to consider a defendant’s mental health during sentencing was approved by the Legislature this week and is headed for Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

The bill, AB 154, would require judges to make a recommendation to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that a convicted felon receive a mental health evaluation if mental illness played a role in the crime. North Coast Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, author of the bill, said he hopes those evaluations will lead to more treatment for prisoners who need it.

An early version of the bill would have allowed for defendants in some cases to be treated in a residential mental health treatment facility instead of being sent to prison. But concerns about the cost of treatment, coupled with the lack of treatment facilities in some counties, led to the elimination of that language, said Levine.

“It’s extraordinarily frustrating... This wasn’t my goal but it’s what we got,” Levine said. Levine said that in the past his legislative efforts to mandate mental health treatment instead of prison for those who need it have been held up in the appropriations process.

Last year, there were about 30,000 state prison inmates with some form of mental illness, ranging from mild depression to schizophrenia, said Randall Hagar, a spokesman for the California Psychiatric Association.

That represents about 25 percent of the state’s total prison population.

Hagar said the current version of AB 154 is “not as strong as I would like.”

“We want to divert people with mental illness from the criminal justice system,” he said. “This bill might be of some help but it really is not the whole ball of wax.”

But the cost of treatment is often a snag for legislative bills that seek to divert those with mental health issues away from incarceration. Hagar said one such bill, SB 8, authored by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, would have created a pretrial diversion program for defendants who commit a misdemeanor or jail felony.

The bill was stalled in the appropriations process last week, he said.

Hagar called the state prison population the “tip of the iceberg” for California’s practice of incarcerating the mentally ill.

The state’s county jails currently hold about 103,000 inmates with some form of mental illness, he said.

In Sonoma County, 40 percent of the roughly 1,100 jail inmates have some mental health issue. Last year there were about 70 inmates with severe mental illness.

Hagar said keeping mentally ill patients from ending up in the jail and state prison requires more community treatment services and inpatient psychiatric services, resources that are severely lacking in many counties.

When it was introduced, Levine’s bill was endorsed by Disability Rights California, a nonprofit advocacy organization with federal and state authority to review and investigate government services affecting the disabled.

Margaret Johnson, advocacy director for DRC, said her organization has taken a neutral position on the current version of the bill.

“We’re neutral at this point because we don’t believe the bill goes far enough to offer alternatives to prison for people who could be served in the community,” she said.

Levine said he wants better screening done by the state prison system in the hope that prison officials will provide mental health services to those “who desperately need it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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