Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a three-part series on mental health at the South Shore.
Courts that divert mentally ill patients from jails and prisons help reintegrate those people back into the community, according to mental health officials.
But without support programs available after an inmate’s release, many of those individuals fall back into the criminal justice system.
El Dorado County operates a behavioral health court in South Lake Tahoe targets mentally-ill adults and youth in the justice system, according to the superior court’s website. It’s an intensive program that evaluates, treats and monitors about 30 participants per year by providing outpatient mental health treatment and other services.
A 2006 document from El Dorado County outlined a three-year plan to funnel Mental Health Services Act, or Proposition 63, funds to the mental health court in South Lake Tahoe. The court would ideally reduce days in custody and the number of repeat offenders as well as increase participants’ community involvement, the document read.
The program’s achieved those goals, according to Presiding Judge of the El Dorado County Superior Court Suzanne Kingsbury. But establishing a wraparound program that supports individuals after they’re released from custody leads to even bigger gains, she said.
“I think (behavioral health court) serves the purpose it’s intended to. But when we started the program we had the benefit of a grant that subsequently went away,” Kingsbury said.
That grant provided funding for a housing system where behavioral health court participants could reside together. A case manager would regulate their treatment and monitor their medications, Kingsbury said.
After that safe housing program disappeared, Kingsbury said the efficacy of the mental health court diminished.
“I think that with the former system, your level of recidivism was very low. I would say that recidivism has gone up a bit, but it’s still better than not having the program at all,” she said.
When a behavioral health court participant is released from custody, they often end up staying at a motel and transportation in the winter can be difficult. The National Alliance on Mental Health South Lake Tahoe branch foots the patients’ initial medical bills, but it takes a while for people to get back on their feet, Kingsbury said.
“Unless they’re couch surfing, they’re generally going to be in a hotel room and often that’s a very grim existence. And these people are often folks who suffer from depression or suicidal tendencies,” she said.
The Bureau of Justice reported that six out of 10 inmates in state prisons suffered from a mental health problem. That’s more than twice the national average according to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health.
The behavioral health court can help divert some of those individuals into treatment rather than prison and help them become someone who benefits the community, NAMI South Lake Tahoe President Diana Hankins said.
For patients — typically low-level, non-violent offenders — to be accepted into the specially court, they must have proof of their mental illness and they must be referred by an official such as the district attorney, jail personnel or a judge, Hankins said.
If they agree to enter the court, they must confess their guilt and agree to stay on their medications and attend mental health services. If they don’t follow all the rules upon their release, patients can end up back in the criminal justice system, Hankins said. Hopefully they can find a place with a roof over their heads so they can follow those requirements, she continued.
El Dorado County Alcohol and Drug Programs Manager Shirley White said South Lake Tahoe mental health patients can transfer to a transitional living facility in Placerville, Calif. White said she recognizes that the transfer can be difficult and that the county is seeking ways to bring affordable, safe housing back to the basin. A team of county personnel discusses the topic weekly, but there is still no timeline for when a building could be acquired, she said.
“We are focusing on trying to get housing in place but there are challenges with resources in the Tahoe community,” she said. “We have great outcomes (with the court),” White said.
Although the recidivism rate for the South Lake Tahoe mental health court could no be obtained, a 2001 study quoted in a Administrative Office of the Courts report found that participants’ arrest shrunk by half a year after they entered the program.
“Although few rigorous evaluations have been conducted (on mental health courts), all show promising results, including increased utilization of treatment services, reduced recidivism, and cost savings,” the report read.