Prosecutors Say Mental Health Law Should be Scaled Back

SACRAMENTO (AP) — California prosecutors are negotiating with Gov. Jerry Brown to scale back a new law that vastly expands the number of criminal suspects that can be diverted to mental health treatment programs and have their charges dismissed.

State law already allowed counties to offer “diversion” programs for offenders with developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, or who have mental health problems resulting from their military service.

The new law signed by Brown last month now allows diversion for any suspect with mental illnesses including bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, even those who commit serious or violent felonies. It excludes anti-social personality disorders and pedophilia.

Judges can dismiss charges against suspects who successfully complete the programs. Judges who order treatment must be satisfied that an offender is unlikely to commit a new violent felony while in such programs.

The expansion is intended to send suspects to treatment before they reach the criminal process, are deemed incompetent to stand trial, and sent to mental hospitals, which already have large waiting lists. Brown’s budget includes $115 million over three years for 850 new placements in community mental health programs.

Prosecutors, however, say the law lets defense attorneys seek diversion of those charged with almost any crime, with few safeguards. San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan called it “a dangerous social experiment.”

“There is hardly a serious or violent felony offense where a criminal defense attorney would not make the case that his or her client should undergo a mental health evaluation,” she said.

Prosecutors want to limit the new program to those charged with misdemeanors or non-serious, nonviolent felonies, similar to a narrower bill that had been moving through the Legislature without opposition and with bipartisan support.

In an illustration of aggressive campaigning against the law, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys of Los Angeles County suggested the process could be invoked by lawyers for Gene Evin Atkins, 28, who authorities say held dozens of people hostage inside a Trader Joe’s market following a gunfight that killed a supermarket worker.

“If the #TraderJoe shooting suspect Gene Atkins convinces a judge he has a mental disorder, under the new law signed by the governor he could have the charges dismissed,” the association said.

It’s not clear if Atkins has been diagnosed with a mental illness or plans to use it as a defense.

El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson, who is leading the negotiation effort, said the California District Attorneys Association supports allowing diversion for more crimes if it doesn’t endanger public safety.

“We want to see that the dangerous criminals are actually punished and held accountable,” he said. “But we always want to see that the mentally ill are effectively treated so they do not continue to do life on the installment plan.”

Pierson said negotiations to narrow the law are “very fluid” but “all the indications are positive that we’re going to be able to work out something.”

Brown’s office declined comment.

Prosecutors also objected that the new broader law was approved by lawmakers in one day as part of an 88-page omnibus budget bill instead of going through the usual legislative process, though Brown had outlined the proposal in his January budget.

The number of California criminal suspects deemed incompetent to stand trial is on a sharp rise. In six years, annual commitments increased from fewer than 2,000 to nearly 3,200. More than 900 suspects are awaiting treatment because there isn’t enough room in current programs.

The Department of State Hospitals, which handles those deemed incompetent, estimated that one of every five suspects might qualify under the new law to be diverted to treatment programs for no more than two years.

University of California, Davis, researchers found that nearly half the suspects judged incompetent were homeless at the time of their arrests.

There is an increased sensitivity to mental illness and a growing recognition among prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges that incarcerating a disturbed offender in prison, jail or a state mental hospital rarely helps them or society in the long run, said Nick Stewart-Oaten, a member of the California Public Defenders Association’s legislative committee.

Disability Rights California legislative director Curtis Child said his organization opposes any attempt to significantly roll back the new law because he said mental health treatment in prisons and jails “is sorely lacking.”

Better to divert those offenders to community based treatment programs, said Child and Stewart-Oaten, a Los Angeles County deputy public defender.

“This gives defense attorneys the power to ask and the court is absolutely free to say no,” Stewart-Oaten said.