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Kelly Ranasinghe

GUEST COLUMN: Mental Health Diversion is the Future of Criminal Justice

For decades untreated mental illness has been the onramp to the criminal justice system. This situation is tragic throughout the country, but in rural communities the criminalization of people with untreated mental illness is exacerbated by a pronounced lack of mental health providers.

The National Institute of Mental Health has noted that 90 percent of “psychologists and psychiatrists … work exclusively in metropolitan areas.” The remaining 10 percent are spread haphazardly throughout rural areas of the country, such as the Imperial Valley. This leaves rural residents in dire need of mental health services and causes systemic problems from criminal defendants lacking treatment options resulting in repetitive contacts with law enforcement.

The problem is particularly acute among youths and young adults. Although over 2 million people with mental illness are “booked into local jails” each year, a whopping 70 percent of juveniles in custody have a “diagnosable mental health condition.” But even with limited resources, a key piece of this puzzle was simply forging connections between criminal defendants and treatment providers.

In 2018, California passed groundbreaking legislation to help divert individuals with mental disorders from the traditional criminal justice system. Penal Code 1001.36 created a method for people with serious mental health disorders to avoid the “onramp” of incarceration and receive treatment and services in the community. This process is called mental health diversion.

Both the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America (MHA), two of the largest mental health organizations in the country, have argued that mental health diversion is critical to preventing the “unfair treatment and abuse (of individuals with mental illness) at every stage of involvement with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”

Since 2018, almost every county in the state, including San Diego, Los Angeles, Solano, San Francisco, Alameda, Orange, Sacramento, and Mono have developed well-established mental health diversion programs. Indeed, in Alameda County and Los Angeles, local prosecutors have not only created but PIONEERED mental health diversion programs, all while reducing recidivism and preventing crime.

In Imperial County, both the Public Defender’s Office and Imperial County Behavioral Health Services work together to assess defendants for mental health diversion.

It is critical for local prosecutors to understand that incarceration of low-level offenders with serious mental illness causes far more problems in rural communities than it solves. Jailing people as a knee-jerk reaction to treatable behavioral problems reflects the old-world mindset of the 18th century “penitentiary,” as the cure-all for crime. (“Penitentiary” meaning a place where one sits and is “penitent” to reflect upon their actions.)

This philosophy of criminal justice is ineffective at best, and catastrophically damaging to people with mental illness at worst. Decompensation of individuals with mental illness is common in custody, and suicides occur disproportionately in solitary confinement.

Embracing modern methods of criminal justice includes maximizing mental health diversion for individuals with mental illness and understanding mental illness as a factor in community justice programs. If the goal is to reduce recidivism, improve public safety and help people on their path to recovery, diversion is recognized as one of the most effective tools to fight crime. It is time our local prosecutors look to this proactive method to reduce crime, rather than maintain the Sisyphean approach of arrest and incarceration of people who need treatment.

Kelly Ranasinghe, J.D., is a board-certified child welfare law specialist. The opinions in this Op-Ed are solely those of the author and not of any private or government organization.