GULAG GOULASH: I’d like to wish Judge Michael Carrozzo all the luck in the world. He’s going to need it. Carrozzo, still relatively new to the bench, recently announced he’d become transformed into the irresistible force in search of an immovable object. Initially, his object seemed to be a severely mentally ill Santa Maria resident named Juan Hernandez Acosta, who — depending on which police report you read — is either 5‘5” or 5‘9” and weighs about 210 pounds. Back in August, Acosta, 55, went into a Santa Maria convenience store, pulled a 28-ounce Gatorade out of the cooler, and emptied the contents onto the floor. Maybe it was the wrong color. Acosta then began chugging a 20-ounce Red Bull, cursing and punching the cooler between swigs. When Acosta refused to pay — the bill was $7.45 — or to leave, cops got called. First, Acosta was taken to jail, then the Goleta emergency room for psychiatric evaluation. There, he punched a security guard in the face. Several times. By the time Carrozzo began weighing in, Acosta had been transferred from the county’s jail to its Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF) and back again. It was immediately obvious Acosta was “Incompetent to Stand Trial” (IST), meaning he couldn’t follow what was happening or assist in his own defense. It wasn’t the first time. In 2001, Acosta got “strange and destructive” toward a next-door neighbor, placing a Phillips-head screwdriver against the man’s neck. His wife walked him home. No neck was punctured. The cops came. When Acosta got booked, he started peeling the rubberized paint off the walls in his jail cell. Additional charges were filed. Ultimately, he was deemed IST and sent to the Patton State Hospital to be “restored.” I’m not sure what good Patton did, but a year later, Acosta was back in trouble, declared IST again, and sent to Patton to be re-restored.
It didn’t take Carrozzo long to realize the irresistible object was not Acosta. Instead, it was the gaping disconnect between the criminal justice and mental-health systems. Beginning in September, Carrozzo began issuing court orders that Acosta be sent to the PHF unit for restoration treatment. By my reckoning, Carrozzo had to sign eight such decrees before anyone took him seriously. Acosta’s attorney, Sheerin Karimian with the Public Defender’s Office, jumped into the action, filing a contempt-of-court action against the county’s Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services for shining on the judge. Either get Acosta treatment, or drop charges, Karimian argued. Attorneys for the county replied there was nothing they could do; PHF was full. “We can’t magic up more beds,” County Counsel C. Aylin Bilir would tell Carrozzo. But not before she accused Karimian of abusing the court system “for the harassment, embarrassment, oppression, and unwarranted annoyance of government officials who lack the ability to effect compliance with the court’s order.” In other words, “We can’t comply, so don’t bug us.”
Bilir, of course, was correct. They can’t comply. There are only 16 beds in PHF; for a county Santa Barbara’s size, there should be at least 40. This may be ancient history, but — to steal a line from Billie Holiday — “so the Bible says, and it still is news.” At any given time, about half of PHF’s beds are occupied by ISTs. And in the past year, the number of ISTs dispatched to PHF has tripled. PHF only takes ISTs charged with misdemeanors. The felony cases are sent to Patton instead. Patton is so jammed that a typical IST defendant spends 87 days chilling in county jail between the time commitment papers are signed and the time a bed opens up. That, by the way, is totally unconstitutional, at least according to the 2nd District Court of Appeal. Jail is not treatment, they ruled, no matter how many pills inmates are forced to take. That ruling, issued in March 2010, is even more widely ignored than Santa Barbara’s ban on gas-powered leaf blowers. The appellate judges, by the way, declined to say exactly how long it could take a county to get an IST into treatment, but they strongly indicated anything beyond 35 days was too long.
Carrozzo made it clear he wanted to smack the TV screen. On Halloween, he called into his chambers all the top brass of all the involved county departments to see what could be done to solve the problem. It was a 35-minute chat. The question isn’t who was there; it’s who wasn’t. The annual combined compensation for those assembled runs due north of $1.5 million. That, I think, is enough to buy the drinks Acosta “stole” 200,000 times over. Everyone was on their best behavior. According to the collective wisdom and experience gracing that room, nothing could be done. It wasn’t safe to release Acosta; it wasn’t right to keep him in jail. And there was no place then available where he could be treated. “I don’t have a solution,” said Leslie Lundt, director of PHF. “The system is the problem.” As bad as Acosta’s case was, Lundt said, she knew of others worse. And every judge, she intimated, seemed to think they were the only one filing commitment orders. Carrozzo replied tartly that he was the only judge then considering a contempt action against the county. “I’m the only one that’s going to do it,” he said. “I’m going to fix this problem one way or the other.”
I bring this up because I mistakenly thought Acosta would be in front of Carrozzo January 9. It didn’t happen. It turns out Judge Carrozzo unilaterally dismissed charges against Acosta “in the interest of justice” on December 9. Somehow, PHF had managed to find a bed for Acosta sometime in November. Acosta was last seen in the process of being placed into a conservatorship. And most recently, the county formed a crack team of mental-health professionals trained in the forensic arts to focus on the problem of ISTs. To date, they’ve worked with a handful. Hey, it’s a start. A very belated trick or treat to you, Judge Carrozzo. But don’t stop whacking the TV screen.