Rx to thin California prison population

In the ongoing flap over prison overcrowding in California and what to do about it, little consideration has been given to inmates such as Stephan Lilly.

I wrote about the Los Angeles man late last year, when his conviction on charges stemming from a scuffle with a security guard were counted as a third strike. Despite a years-long battle with schizophrenia, and the fact that one of the three strikes was a threat that involved no physical contact, Lilly got 25 to life.

California’s prisons are jammed with thousands of mentally ill inmates who didn’t get help before their incarceration and aren’t likely to get much while locked up. Not only is that like a chapter out of the Dark Ages, but the high rate of repeat crimes among parolees is costing taxpayers a fortune.

Tomorrow, state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, will introduce a bill that calls for a complete overhaul of mental health care behind bars, with the goal of putting a big dent in both the overcrowding problem and the high recidivism rates.


“I would argue very strongly that it’s the missing element of corrections reform,” Steinberg said. How can you talk about getting a handle on overcrowding, he asks, without doing something about the fact that an estimated 20%-25% of the state’s 170,000 inmates are bipolar, schizophrenic, clinically depressed or otherwise afflicted?

Steinberg expects a vigorous debate over the details of his legislation, especially on funding and staffing, areas on which he is a little vague. But the basic idea is to establish mental health courts that can divert worthy defendants into treatment instead of prison, to bolster services behind prison walls, and to prepare inmates for a return to community-based programs once they’ve served their time.

“California has the highest recidivism rate in the country,” said Adam Mendelsohn, a spokesman for Gov. Schwarzenegger. He said his boss wants a comprehensive overhaul of prisons, and “the governor would welcome a discussion about the mental health aspect.”

Steinberg brings real credibility to the subject and has worked previously with the governor on mental health. He was the godfather of Prop. 63 in 2004, which taxed the state’s highest income earners to fund new mental health services across California, based on a model that includes housing, treatment, job training and a raft of additional support services.

Steinberg still hopes that Prop. 63’s yearly infusions of roughly $1.6 billion will go a long way toward reducing skid row populations that began growing when the state shut mental hospitals under then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and reneged on a promise to build community clinics.

One thing he won’t stand for, Steinberg said, is stealing money from Prop. 63 to pay for his new plan. If the governor can find $10.9 billion for his prison reform plan, the senator argued, the state should be able to shift funds or find additional revenue to pay for a mental health overhaul that could deliver long-term savings.

Steinberg pointed to a program that was a precursor to Prop. 63, in which formerly homeless clients with mental illness had a 56% reduction in hospitalization and a 72% reduction in incarceration. That program cost roughly one-third as much per person as it costs to lock someone up in prison for a year.

Stephan Lilly might not be facing life in prison, his attorney Donna Tryfman told me, if Steinberg’s legislation were already in place.