Steinberg seeks to restore mental health funds for criminals


SACRAMENTO — Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said Thursday that he will seek to restore a state program that funded county services for mentally ill people who run afoul of the law.

After a decade of state funding, the Mentally Ill Offender Crime Reduction Grants ceased in 2008 due to budget cuts. Steinberg wants to restore funding, starting with $50 million in the next budget year. But that money is contingent on whether Gov. Jerry Brown receives a delay in a federal court order to reduce state prison crowding.

Brown had agreed to special legislation that sets aside a portion of the state’s savings for use in mental health and other programs aimed at reducing crime if the court’s limit on the prison population is postponed. Without a delay, the governor intends to use that funding to send state prisoners to private facilities out of state.


Steinberg said that if Brown does not succeed in convincing federal judges to extend the deadline to reduce prison crowding, he would consider trying to add the grant program to the 2014 state budget. It is no coincidence, he said, that the judges’ cutoff date for a prison crowding settlement is the same day that Brown must submit his 2014 spending plan to the Legislature.

“Any additional funding for mental health would be helpful,” said Reaver Bingham, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

So many of the former state prisoners who must now be supervised by the county are mentally ill that the Los Angeles department is setting up special squads of probation officers who are trained to deal with them, Bingham said. Estimates of the number of prisoners sent to probation who have a history of mental illness range from 40% to 70%, he said.

Steinberg said his proposal, which has yet to be drafted into legislation, would offer competitive grants to fund programs such as mental health courts, where judges sentence mentally ill offenders to treatment instead of jail. He said he would like to dedicate half of the grants to services for mentally ill juvenile offenders.

“We are trying to build that system that was promised decades ago, when the psychiatric hospitals were shut down,” Steinberg said. “I wish we could build that mental health system in one fell swoop, but we are trying to build it layer upon layer.”

By 2005, a state report noted, the program was funding 20 local projects providing services to about 8,000 mentally ill offenders. Nine counties used their grants to fund mental health courts, and 13 counties also targeted mentally ill offenders who had drug abuse problems as well. Some limited services to those who had committed nonviolent misdemeanors.

Those offenders receiving services under the grants were slightly less likely to return to jail than their untreated counterparts, according to the state report. The report said 53% of those in such programs returned to jail within two years, while 56% of those who received aid re-offended.

Larger changes were noted in the drug and alcohol abuse and homelessness rates, with 32% of those enrolled in the state-funded programs able to become economically self-sufficient, in contrast to 24% of those not enrolled.