The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

December 23, 2013

Other Views: Chance to heal

— It’s a sad truth of the criminal justice system that a substantial number of the people we lock up for crimes need meds more than jail beds.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has said in all seriousness that the jail system he runs amounts to “the nation’s largest mental hospital.”

Isolation in a cell might keep some off the streets — at least temporarily — but ultimately treatment for the psychiatric disorders that plague some offenders and lead them to destructive behavior is what would keep society safer.

Recognizing it was both inhumane and ineffective to simply lock up the sick with the crooked, mental health courts have emerged in recent years as a vital alternative to standard sentencing in jurisdictions around the country. Diverting defendants into treatment under a judge’s close supervision gets them help with the stern incentive of criminal penalties if they drop their program.

In Shasta County, Calif., starting next month, the Superior Court plans to hold a weekly Behavioral Health Court. It will be a voluntary program that the court hopes to launch with 15 patient-defendants who suffer from serious mental illnesses.

A pair of social workers and a probation officer will work closely with the court to keep participants moving in a healthy direction.

This isn’t a new idea, and proposals have floated around for years, but resources have always been scarce and local courts hesitant to invest the time.

In California, prison realignment has made the need to try new approaches urgent. The status quo sure isn’t working well.

A mental illness isn’t an excuse for a crime, but that doesn’t mean simple punishment is always the right approach — for taxpayers, crime victims, the law-abiding public or defendants.

Behavioral Health Court promises to hold defendants accountable and help them get well at the same time.

Let’s hope it delivers.

—Scripps Howard News Service

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