Health Court Sentences The Mentally Ill To Treatment
Lots of mentally ill people end up on the streets of San Diego. And many of them eventually end up in jail. The cycle of arrest, incarceration and release is something that advocates for the mentally ill want to stop. And now, San Diego Superior Court has begun a project aimed at diverting people from jail to treatment. It's called behavioral health court.
Thirty-one-year-old Pharoh Degree lives in his mother's home in Spring Valley. It's a spacious home with a view of Mount San Miguel. Degree said he was diagnosed with schizophrenia 11 years ago while he was in the U.S. Army. But when he was discharged, he didn't come home to his mom. He chose to live on the streets.
"I came back to live in San Diego and I immediately was homeless," said Degree. "I was living on the streets, indulging in drugs and alcohol. And that's when most of the trouble happened. Petty theft, possession charges, ending up in and out of county jail -- things like that."
Degree said he may have been sent to jail more than ten times while he lived on the streets. Once he ended up in prison. It's a common story for people who are mentally ill and come in conflict with the law. Degree said being in jail had its upside. It was a chance to get some treatment. But his mother, Anita Fisher, said sick people shouldn't go to jail.
"Jail and prison is not a place that's designed to treat illness. You wouldn't send cancer patients or any other ailment to jail or prison for treatment. You would sent them to a place designed for that. A hospital," said Fisher.
The effort to quit sending mentally ill people to jail in San Diego has led to Behavioral Health Court, which held its first session last month. Behavioral Health Court is modeled on drug court, which sentences drug addicts to treatment rather than incarceration. Judge Robert Trentacosta presides over health court. He said the court won't hear serious felony cases. But they adjudicate many smaller crimes which homeless, mentally ill people often commit.
"We get a lot of cases where individuals attempt to self-medicate," said Trentacosta. "So there's drug use, drug possession, drug sales. We get a lot of cases involving theft, vandalism, trespass."
He said rather than jail time, offenders in health court are sentenced to probation. They are assigned a parole officer and social worker who can provide them services.
"It's follow up with doctors. It may be medication. It's housing, if they are in need of housing. And then you can move on to vocational training or educational training," said Trentacosta.
San Diego's behavioral health court receives $800,000 a year from the Mental Heath Services Act, passed by California voters in 2004. People running health court in San Diego hope it will eventually save the county money, as fewer mentally ill people have to be arrested, housed and treated in jail.
Richard Conklin oversees social service staff for the San Diego jail system. He said there are about 5,000 people in jail in San Diego on any given day. And about 20 percent of them require psychiatric treatment. He said mentally ill people ended up in jail following the closure of state hospitals and the failure to fund treatment in the community.
"That's where you saw mentally ill folks and other end up homeless and being sentenced into the criminal justice system," said Conklin.
Behavioral health court is based on an 18 month treatment plan instead of jail time. Judge Trentacosta said offenders who use the court are required to sign a contract and stick to the rules. Pharoh Degree had to make the step from incarceration to treatment without the new health court. He said treatment isn't easy, but the alternative is the troubled life he led before.
"It was out of control, lost. No plan. No hope. You know what I mean, not reaching out to family," said Degree.
Behavioral Health Court is new to San Diego but not to California. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says 25 counties in California have something similar to what's been launched here. Judge Trentacosta said the San Diego court will keep records and a year from now, they'll have a pretty good idea of how well it's working in the county.