April was a grim month for legislators hoping to chip away at Realignment, as some 20 bills proposing to do so died in committee. Last week, however, one such bill saw hope for new life. Gov. Brown’s revised budget, released May 14, revived a bill requiring that certain people with mental illness be supervised by state parole, rather than county probation, regardless of their current offense or mental health status. The bill stigmatizes people who have suffered from mental illness by shackling them with harsher supervision, and unreasonably assumes they will receive better supervision and treatment from the state than from the community.
The provision originated as AB 1065 (Holden), and refers to a small subset of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) mentally ill population — Mentally Disordered Offenders (MDOs). A prisoner is certified as an MDO if he or she has a severe mental disorder that
- contributed to the commission of the current offense, which involved violence; and
- continues to make the person dangerous to others.
After completing his or her prison term, an MDO is committed to a state hospital (a secure mental health facility) until no longer considered “dangerous” — at least one year, and potentially indefinitely. Once no longer classified as an MDO, the individual is released to outpatient treatment under parole supervision.
However, the proposed bill doesn’t deal with MDOs — under Realignment, MDOs continue to be supervised by state parole. Instead, the bill requires parole for people who were classified as MDOs during a prior prison term, but who have demonstrated they are no longer dangerous, and who are currently serving a prison term for a low-level offense. Not only does the bill disregard the current offense, but it also fails to consider the person’s recovery, current behavior, or the amount of time that has passed since the original MDO classification. Instead, the bill — like so many other criminal justice policies — makes the unfounded assumption that once a person has been considered “dangerous,” he or she remains so indefinitely.
The bill also implies that parole agents are better able to supervise people with mental illness than are probation officers. However, the most recent CDCR data show a failure rate of 77 percent for people on parole with serious mental illness. Preliminary data from the CDCR show that people released from prison after Realignment, including “decertified” MDOs under community supervision, have an arrest rate slightly lower than people released before Realignment, all of whom were supervised by parole.
Most people released from prison can be better served by county probation than state parole, as counties are better connected with community organizations and agencies that provide mental health treatment, housing, and government assistance. Counties also have stronger incentives to rehabilitate people and decrease crime, as they are directly impacted by a failure to do so.
Some counties insist they do not have the capacity to supervise and treat the post-Realignment population, particularly those with mental illnesses.
But as the California Public Defenders Association wrote in an opposition letter to the bill, “if the counties contend that they do not have sufficient funding to provide services for this population, the solution is to provide the counties with more money” — not pass the responsibility back to the state.
Realignment is an opportunity to improve reentry and rehabilitation by enhancing community-based corrections. The state legislature has quashed nearly every attempt to curtail this opportunity, and should continue to do so.
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
Sunday, 26 May 2013