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HumCo Forum Explores Mental Illness, Incarceration

A panel of mental health, probation and law enforcement officials has called on the community to support programs that avoid using the criminal justice system as a means of dealing with mental illness.

A forum exploring the “intersection of mental illness and the criminal justice system” held at the United Congregational Church in Eureka highlighted the value of treating mentally ill people rather than hampering their recovery by incarcerating them.

Sponsored by the county’s League of Women Voters and National Alliance on Mental Illness chapters, the forum was attended by about 75 people and featured a panel of mental health and law enforcement professionals.

County Chief Probation Officer Bill Damiano said that his department has become a “central figure” in developing community-based corrections programs since 2011, when the state transferred felony incarceration and parole supervision to counties.

Some of the money saved by the state from reducing prison population and parole caseloads has been sent to counties, Damiano continued, and there’s been investment in programs that aim to divert mentally ill people from the legal system.

Probationers are offered programs at the Community Corrections Resource Center, a headquarters for a variety of services, including mental health services, located across the street from the county jail.

Treatment is available for “any person touching the jail with a mental health issue,” said Damiano, who also chairs the county’s Community Corrections Partnership (CCP), a multi-agency group that administrates realignment funding.

“We stressed, at the CCP, that we want to make sure that we’re not housing people with mental health disorders in the jail if they can be released into the community,” he added.

But County Public Defender Kevin Robinson said the problem of jails becoming de facto mental institutions is broad in scope and difficult to address.

Relatives of mental ill people have “cried out for help,” Robinson continued, pleading for treatment instead of incarceration.

“And my response has been, for 20 years now, that the criminal justice system is a very blunt instrument for providing treatment for the mentally ill,” he said.

Funding for community-based help has been limited, he continued, adding that “what’s happening today is that mentally ill people are locked up in jails and the jails can’t help them.”

District Attorney Maggie Fleming said sometimes her office isn’t aware of the involvement of mental health issues in a crime until prosecution reaches the court level.

At that point, intent is evaluated and if a not guilty by reason of insanity plea is entered, separate hearings focus on guilt and whether an offender was mentally impaired when a crime was committed.

Fleming said childhood trauma can spur lifelong mental health issues. Funding for a mental health clinician in the county’s Child Abuse Services Team has been re-instated, she continued, and allows for therapy immediately after episodes of abuse.

Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills said there’s increasing awareness of the importance of using “de-escalation techniques” and crisis intervention training when officers deal with mentally ill people.

Mills said his officers often respond to incidents related to mental illness and “the police are really the only 24/7 social service agency available to try to deal with it.”

The county once had a specialty mental health court program but it’s been discontinued. During a question and answer session, Mark Lamers, a supervising mental health clinician with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said diversion programs are worthy community investments.

“I’ve worked with folks who’ve had hundreds of arrests for substance-associated offenses or public disturbance misdemeanor offenses,” he continued. “On one hand, it’s really challenging to provide any new programs in our court in order to provide benefits to this population and at the same time, some of the members of this population are part of the reason why courts are so impacted – because we’re trying to treat mental health issues through the court system.”

Responding to the question “Where do we go from here?” the panelists said treatment and diversion programs are effective when they’re supported by the community. “When we open our minds and get a lot of support, our programs seem to succeed,” Damiano said.

California’s swing toward community-based programs won’t be reversed, he continued, as “the reason re-alignment happened was because of people with mental illness dying in prison because of inadequate care.”

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