California Aims To Tighten Law That Diverts Suspects To Mental Health Treatment

By Victoria Kim 08/16/18
Prosecutors argue that a new law should restrict the type of suspects who can qualify for mental health treatment in lieu of jail.
California governor Jerry Brown
California Governor Jerry Brown

California prosecutors are fighting to amend a law aimed at diverting mentally ill suspects to treatment in lieu of the criminal justice system.

The law, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in June as part of a budget bill, gives judges the option to divert a suspect to a mental health treatment program and dismiss charges if it is decided that mental illness “played a significant role” in the crime, NBC News reported.

The diversion program was intended to reduce the backlog of suspects sent to mental hospitals, NBC News reported, because they are judged incompetent to stand trial.

California law already allowed for the diversion of mentally ill suspects, but prosecutors argue that the new law extends the privilege to too many people, namely people charged with serious crimes.

The new law allows the diversion of “any suspect with mental illness”—including bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, but excludes anti-social personality disorders and pedophilia, the LA Times reported.

In response, Governor Brown submitted a proposal on Monday night to limit who can participate in the diversion program. The proposal allows judges to exclude a “much broader range of dangerous suspects,” specifically banning those charged with murder, rape and other sex crimes from participating in the program.

Another part of the proposal prohibits suspects from owning firearms while participating in the program, and they may be required to pay restitution.

El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson said the proposal is “a significant improvement from the original language that was passed and signed into law as part of the budget,” according to the Times.

However, not everyone agrees with the proposal. One deputy public defender said the proposed revision “guts mental health diversion and goes far beyond a reasonable compromise,” allowing California counties to “continue to do what they have done for years—send sick people to prison instead of treatment.”

“The end result is higher incarceration rates for ill Californians, lawsuits for ill Californians, lawsuits against counties for mistreatment of the mentally ill and higher recidivism rates for untreated offenders,” said LA County deputy public defender Nick Stewart-Oaten, who is a member of the California Public Defenders Association’s legislative committee.

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