By Richard Halstead
The county of Marin has joined a national campaign to do something about the inordinately large number of mentally ill people who are being incarcerated in local jails.
At last count more than 300 counties had signed on to the “Stepping Up Initiative,” which is being spearheaded by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the National Association of Counties and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.
A group of Marin County officials that included Supervisor Damon Connolly; Marin County sheriff’s Capt. Rick Navarro; Suzanne Tavano, the county’s director of mental health and substance use services; Michael Daly, the county’s chief probation officer; and D.J. Pierce, chief of the county’s division of Alcohol, Drug and Tobacco Programs, attended a California summit on the initiative held in Sacramento in January. Fifty-three of California’s 58 counties sent representatives to the meeting.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to sign on to the call to action.
“I expect this year to see some focused planning on how our Marin Department of Health and Human Services works with jail detention services to address the unique challenges of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system,” said Connolly, who is heading up the committee to address this issue.
Connolly said he anticipated further discussion on the issue next week when supervisors are scheduled to consider adoption of Assembly Bill 1421, also known as Laura’s Law, which gives local judges the authority to order severely mentally ill individuals to undergo outpatient treatment. The proposal is for a two-year pilot program to assess the effectiveness of Laura’s Law in Marin.
Need for Change
On Tuesday, Marin Superior Court Judge Kelly Simmons, who presides over Marin’s mental health court, spoke passionately about need for change in the way that the mentally ill are processed through the legal system.
“If people came to the court and saw how long the mentally ill sit in jail because we can’t provide the appropriate services for them, I think they’d be shocked,” Simmons said.
During an interview after the meeting, Simmons explained the problem in more detail. Once someone with a mental illness is booked into county jail, often due to behavior caused by their illness, they typically remain there until their case is resolved in the courts.
“Because they’re mentally ill, they’re really unable to cooperate with their lawyer,” Simmons said, “so it is harder to get their case through the system quickly.”
County Public Defender Jose Varela said when a person’s mental health status is at issue in a legal case, their mental health has to be investigated by numerous agents.
“The prosecutor has to look into it, the probation department and the court,” Varela said. “That often takes weeks and sadly in some cases months before cases can be resolved.”