In a harshly worded opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that California’s grossly overcrowded prisons and their resulting dearth of treatment for inmates with mental illness and other medical needs is so “incompatible with the concept of human dignity” that the state is in violation of the Constitution’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
The facts in the case were no surprise to us. Barely a year ago - in May 2011 - the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Assn. released a damning study of mental illness in jail and prison populations that concluded “America’s jails and prisons have become our new mental hospitals.” Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a research psychiatrist and expert on the criminalization of mental illness, says the “progressive increase” in the number of prisoners with serious mental illness or psychosis since deinstitutionalization began in the 1960s is “striking.”
“In the 1970s, people talked of 5% of the prisoners having a severe mental illness. In the 1980s, it was 10%. In the 1990s, it was 15%. And now in the past decade we are seeing 20% and up. Can anyone guess where this line is going?” he asks.
In Brown v. Plata et.al., the U.S. Supreme Court had a courtside seat to see where the line has gone in California. The Court recognized California’s budget crisis and opined that the state will have to solve the problem using a number of methods, including the possible release of more than 30,000 nonviolent offenders to reduce the state prison population.
Sadly, the nation already knows what it looks like when thousands of people with severe mental illness hit the streets without treatment. Deinstitutionalization produced not only the crisis in California’s prisons but millions of homeless people and thousands of preventable homicides, suicides and other acts of violence. The only responsible and humane way to address this crisis is by assuring that the released inmates do, at last, receive treatment.
California already has a proven and cost-effective mechanism to make this happen. The state has had an assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) law known as “Laura’s Law” on the books since 2001. Under the law, counties get to choose whether they want to opt in or not. Only two counties have so far opted in, and only one has fully implemented the law – Nevada County, which recently won a state award because of the success of its program. The time for the other 56 counties to follow suit and implement Laura’s Law was a long time ago. The necessity of implementing is now.