Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Correctional madness: Realignment on the right track in L.A.

By Jonathan Simon

"The California Report" and the Center for Investigative Reporting posted another excellent report on realignment this morning (broadcast on many NPR stations and available online after a delay here — this one focused on the vital issue of how counties, which get both resources and discretion over post-prison supervision for many California prisoners, are working with former prisoners who live with mental illness.  This is crucial.  As the Supreme Court highlighted in Brown v. Plata, California's overcrowded reception-center prisons were machines of madness, taking parolees already suffering from lack of adequate treatment in the community, and typically throwing them back in prison in response to their deteriorating behavior.  Once in prison, an inadequate mental healthcare system, paralyzed by near 300% capacity population at many reception centers, has led these prisoners to deteriorate further, in time to be released on parole again in even worse shape.

Los Angeles County, which has been struggling with the criminalization of mental illness since the 1970s, appears from the report to be taking a very strong approach, with an emphasis on wrap-around services, housing (because many of parolees with mental illness end up on the street), and a clear intent to avoid unnecessary incarcerations in response to minor violations.  Much of the program is being operated by an NGO specializing in delivering services to people with mental illness, rather than a law-enforcement agency focused on punishment and control and deeply hostile to the idea of mental illness after decades of official anti-medicine in California.  Paradoxically this approach seems to actually produce valuable intelligence about real crime and the ability to distinguish between truly emerging threats and simple setbacks or relapses (say, on drug use) — just the kind of intelligence that contemporary corrections and law enforcement has largely lost the capacity to produce over the past 40 years.

This was highlighted in the episode by an interview with an LAPD officer assigned to a special re-entry unit.  While one might hope that such a unit would benefit from the kind of individualized thinking emerging from the NGO side of the re-entry enterprise, it was not apparent from the interview.  Instead, the officer suggested that many parolees might be hiding out in mental hospitals to avoid arrest for serious crimes.  This suggests a basic lack of awareness of mental health hospitalization opportunities in California (it is quite hard even for people with florid symptoms to get hospitalized) as well as a skepticism about the reality of mental illness that unfortunately is pervasive in law enforcement.

As good as the realignment approach in LA with regard to former prisoners with mental illnesses sounds, it begs another question.  Why are we letting so many people with mental illness drift into our criminal-justice system as our primary way of getting them needed treatment?

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.