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Policy: Law

Prison mental health panel lacks leadership

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Photo - FILE- In this Feb. 14, 2013 file photo, an inmate waits for his appointment in a holding room at new mental health treatment unit at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif. Two members of the Council On Mentally Ill Offenders, an obscure council within the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's, said the council can not meet its obligations because it has lacked an executive director for more than two years. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
FILE- In this Feb. 14, 2013 file photo, an inmate waits for his appointment in a holding room at new mental health treatment unit at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif. Two members of the Council On Mentally Ill Offenders, an obscure council within the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's, said the council can not meet its obligations because it has lacked an executive director for more than two years. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Frustration with a council that is supposed to advise the prison system, state agencies and law enforcement about mental health treatment has led the California Senate leader to call for changes in how it operates and how it is overseen.

The Council on Mentally Ill Offenders has been without an executive director for more than two years, and its volunteer members say they cannot meet the council's obligations on their own. As a result, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is proposing to switch oversight from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to the Board of State and Community Corrections.

The council was created by law 13 years ago and is supposed to recommend cost-effective ways to keep the mentally ill from committing crimes. Advocates for proper treatment of the mentally ill say getting the council to function as intended is important not only for those who need help but also to California taxpayers because it should reduce the number of people being sent to state prisons and county jails.

Advocates say its expertise has never been needed more.

California is struggling to end two decades of federal court oversight of the care it provides mentally ill state prison inmates, while county sheriffs complain that they are poorly equipped to handle the mentally troubled offenders who are flowing to their jails under a 3-year-old criminal justice realignment law.

The 12-member council "offers California tremendous potential to significantly revise criminal justice policy, and creates better coordination between mental healthcare, supervision, and the communities where former-offenders are returned," Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in a written statement to The Associated Press.

Steinberg is proposing the oversight switch as part of negotiations over the state budget and said the change would help limit "the budget busting expense of prison's revolving door."

State corrections spokeswoman Dana Simas told the AP that the department lacks money for an executive director despite its nearly $10 billion annual budget and had no plans to fill the position.

The department has taken no position on Steinberg's proposal, she said, and will leave it to the Legislature to decide whether oversight of the council should be changed.

But after the AP began making inquiries, the corrections department announced a change in its position. Last week, an undersecretary said during a meeting of the council that the department was now committed to funding the director's position.

Members cannot do an adequate job without a director because most work full-time jobs and volunteer their time, said the council's vice chairman, Manuel Jimenez Jr., and Dave Lehman, a retired Humboldt County chief probation officer who has been on the council since its inception.

"To have the working knowledge and to just see it flounder is very frustrating," Lehman said in an interview.

Jimenez, on behalf of other members, wrote letters in September and January asking state Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard to find an executive director.

"I think the money is there, they just need to make it a priority," Jimenez, Alameda County's mental health director, said in an interview.

He estimated that the executive director could be a 20-hour-a-week position paying $50,000 a year.

By law, the state corrections secretary, an appointee of the governor, is the council's chairman. Other members include the directors of the state departments of State Hospitals and Health Care Services, and members appointed by the governor, Senate and Assembly. The state attorney general and Supreme Court chief justice also are part of the council.

Beard has attended none of the five council meetings since July and has not responded to the January letter.

Legislation to create the council was introduced in 2001 by then-Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, at the recommendation of the Little Hoover Commission, a state watchdog agency. Perata urged then that the state devote "a tiny fraction" of the $1.5 billion it spent annually to incarcerate mentally ill inmates to a statewide council that would "investigate and promote cost-effective solutions to keep the mentally ill from committing crimes."

Recently, Perata was appointed to the Little Hoover Commission. He said that he will seek ways to revive the council.

Spokesmen for Gov. Jerry Brown told the AP — before last week's sudden reversal by the corrections department — that the state budget has no money for an executive director, even though it is running a surplus and the independent legislative analyst predicts it will take in $2.5 billion more than projected in tax revenue in the coming fiscal year.

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