In a recent column, “Mad Dogs on the Loose,” Nick Welsh made an excellent case for establishing additional psychiatric beds in Santa Barbara County, in addition to step-down intensive residential treatment beds, as opposed to adding jail cells to accommodate mentally ill persons. “For a county our size, PHF administrator Leslie Lundt told the [Santa Barbara County] supervisors, we need 30 to 60 beds.” We presently have 16, and more are definitely needed.
However, a second important way to reduce jail overcrowding is to ensure treatment in the community for seriously mentally ill persons, so that they don’t wind up in jail. Assisted Outpatient Treatment, a program embodied in California in Laura’s Law, is a legal procedure whereby a judge can compel a person at risk and deteriorating with a serious mental illness (someone who has been jailed or hospitalized at least twice in the previous 36 months) to be treated for his/her illness as a condition of community living. In Nevada County, where Laura’s Law has been implemented, incarcerations have been reduced by 65 percent, and homelessness by 62 percent, as a result. When noticed of an upcoming court hearing, more than 80 percent of those noticed elect to voluntarily engage in treatment, instead.
Unfortunately, boards of supervisors must approve Laura’s Law, and Santa Barbara County’s has not yet done so. Given a recent legislative clarification that Mental Health Services Act funds may be used for the implementation of Laura’s Law, now is the time. Our most seriously mentally ill residents deserve better than languishing in jail cells.