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Most Mentally Ill Defendants Not Diverted To Treatment In SD County

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Mentally ill defendants convicted of non-violent offenses are seldom diverted into treatment in San Diego County, as a new state law allows.

Speaker 1: 00:00 A state law man to divert people with mental health issues away from criminal prosecution and into treatment is still relatively new and it's apparently not being eagerly embraced by San Diego County prosecutors. The San Diego Union Tribune has found that out of 80 requests for mental health diversions, only 20 people have been granted access to the program in the last year. The county says it's trying to assemble the right kind of team to oversee treatment while keeping the public safe from offenders. And joining me is San Diego Union Tribune reporter Greg Moran. Greg, welcome to the program.

Speaker 2: 00:37 Thanks Corey.

Speaker 1: 00:38 Why does state legislators enact this law? Is it another effort to decrease the state's prison and jail populations?

Speaker 2: 00:46 I think it was, I think there was certainly a, a motivating factor here. They wanted to limit the, uh, uh, reduce the number of people who were being housed in state hospitals to regain their mental competencies so they could go through the criminal proceedings stuff. This is a way to kind of, um, filter people out of that and get them the help that they really need. So, yeah, it was part of this years long effort by the state to reduce the prison population and also to kind of change the criminal justice systems approach to certain kinds of offenders.

Speaker 1: 01:19 How is this mental health diversion program supposed to work?

Speaker 2: 01:22 The idea behind it is that if you're charged with a crime and if you have an existing mental illness that you can show was a contributing factor or a significant factor in why you, uh, committed that crime, you make your case to the judge, uh, that would also include a treatment plan for you. Uh, uh, a goal for that treatment. If the judge agrees it's a good idea, your criminal case stop and you, um, are diverted into this treatment, uh, that it can either be a private provider, there are some public programs you can get into that diversion can last up to two years. Uh, during that time you're checking in regularly with the court, they're monitoring you if you fail or are fall off, uh, you can be pulled out of diversion and your criminal case start again.

Speaker 1: 02:16 What kinds of offenders are eligible for treatment?

Speaker 2: 02:20 Know, in the initial iteration of the law, which was passed in in June of last year of 2018 anybody could get it. So anybody from a vandal to a murderer, a when prosecutors found out about it around the state back then, there was a very significant pushback also from judges that this was too wide a, uh, an aperture for, uh, all kinds of people to try to take advantage of. So there was an amendment of a law that passed earlier this year that exclude anyone charged with murder, uh, child abuse, uh, sexual assault or rape or things like that. Those people aren't eligible for diversion.

Speaker 1: 02:57 Now, you reported that in San County courts diversion doesn't happen very often. Why not?

Speaker 2: 03:03 You know, it's, it's a complicated question. Um, are then ultimately the decision is left to the judge. The judges here have enormous discretion to say yes or no. And it seems like in many of these cases, there've been 80 cases, uh, in three out of four of them nursing. No, that could be for a variety of reasons. It could be, um, if the judge doesn't think that the, uh, the, the, the treatment plan of a program, the person is going into is, uh, robust enough or will work or is, uh, [inaudible] or just as the person who is capable of qualified of doing it. Ultimately it's the judge's decision. But the other factor that's going on here is that in 95% of these cases, the district attorney's office, which had a lot of sway and courtroom has been opposed to these petitions.

Speaker 1: 03:53 In fact, there's some opposition in the San Diego District Attorney's office to the law and aspects of the law itself. What are they?

Speaker 2: 04:02 Well, a couple, they, uh, they initially they were against this law when it was passed last year and for several months after it was fortunately, they were finally constitutional challenges doing things that the law violated a victim's rights and other elements of the constitution. We abandoned that earlier this year. And now we're sort of taking these on a case by case thing. But they've also said that, you know, um, there aren't enough, uh, programs, public programs available to people. So it could be a thing where, um, defendants who are well off or wealthy or, or have more resources to get a private mental health treatment will be eligible for it. And, uh, co-defendants, uh, who don't have those resources, uh, who may still be in need of help, wouldn't be able to get it. And I think there's some unfairness there. And however, also some kind of technical objections. One is, as I mentioned in the story, is that there's no prohibition against someone who is in a diversion program for mental health treatment to obtaining a firearm or something.

Speaker 1: 05:06 Is The DA's office trying to put together some sort of program so they can comply more often with this new law?

Speaker 2: 05:12 Well, that's to be seen, you know, a couple of months ago in May, uh, the district attorney Summer Stephan unveiled this very ambitious and kind of sweeping plans they've been working on for a year called the blueprint for creating mental health, uh, homelessness in the criminal justice system. One of the goals of that plan is to create a diversion program. You know, the other thing I should mention is that oftentimes when the, in talking to them, the prosecutors think that it's better for the public safety and for the individual not to get into a diversion program before their cases resolved, but to plead guilty or be convicted, be placed on probation, and then get treatment through a probation system.

Speaker 1: 05:55 I've been speaking with San Diego Union Tribune reporter Greg Moran and Greg. Thank you.

Speaker 2: 06:00 You're welcome.

Speaker 3: 06:06 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.