Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mentally ill inmates languish in CA prisons

Inmates with serious mental illnesses deemed incompetent to stand trial are languishing in California jail cells for months as they wait for state hospital beds to open up, according to Jocelyn Wiener of the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting writing in The Sacramento Bee.

State and county budget cuts to mental health programs are combining with prison realignment and a shrinking number of state hospital beds to exacerbate the problem, they say.

In many counties, seriously mentally ill inmates routinely wait three to six months in jail before a state hospital bed opens up, said Randall Hagar, director of government affairs for the California Psychiatric Association. He calls the situation, which he says has gotten worse in recent years, "tragic."

Weiner wrote that in recent years, counties around California have been severely hit by budget cuts to mental health services. From 2009 to 2012, California has reduced mental health funding by $765 million, more than a fifth of its mental health budget, according to a report by the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, which advocates for services and treatment. As funds and services have disappeared, the number of people with mental illness landing behind bars has surged.

State prison inmates with mental illnesses increased from 19 percent in 2007 to 25 percent in 2012, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Dr. Gregory Sokolov, medical director of Sacramento County jail psychiatric services, said the county has also seen a steady increase in inmates with severe mental illnesses, which he attributes in large part to the reduction in mental health services.

He said wait times to get into state hospitals got so bad six years ago that a local Superior Court judge ordered the hospitals to accept Sacramento's mentally ill inmates within seven days of a judge committing them. That improved the local situation for a while, Sokolov said, although lately the transfers have started to slow down again.

Advocates emphasize that state hospitals are not ideal places for the majority of seriously mentally ill patients, many of whom might flourish if they received intensive support services in the community. But few suggest the jails are a better substitute, reported Weiner.

Darrell Steinberg, state Senate president pro tem, said incarceration of the mentally ill was one of the main reasons he authored the Mental Health Services Act, a 2004 ballot measure that levied a 1 percent tax on millionaires to fund innovative programs for this population.

"The criminalization of the mentally ill is Exhibit A for how, as a society, we have not made mental health a priority," he said.

To read more: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/05/27/4519117/mentally-ill-inmates-on-the-rise.html#storylink=cpy

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