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Mental health key in corrections budget
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — Democrats in the Legislature want the state corrections budget to spend tens of millions of dollars more on mental health services as a way to improve treatment and increase rehabilitation options.

They are making their case as lawmakers have just days to craft a budget deal before Sunday’s deadline and as the state and a handful of counties deal with lawsuits related to the treatment of mentally ill inmates in the state prison and local jail systems.

But it’s far from certain that Democratic lawmakers get all they want in this week’s budget negotiations.

Gov. Jerry Brown and county sheriffs, for example, want $500 million in bond money to expand jails so they can adequately house the thousands of new inmates that counties are receiving under the governor’s three-year-old realignment law, which diverts lower-level offenders from state prisons.

Senate Democrats are seeking to broaden how that money can be used. They want to give county boards of supervisors the ability to spend it on mental health and substance abuse treatment facilities, transitional housing or other jail alternatives.

Their position on jail funding is supported by reform groups but is being criticized by the California State Sheriffs’ Association. Republican lawmakers and the California State Association of Counties support Brown’s proposal, while a plan by Democrats in the state Assembly gives sheriffs more flexibility in spending the money.

“Counties have a huge problem with jails that were constructed decades ago,” said Aaron Maguire, a lobbyist for the sheriff’s association.

While he said the alternative programs are worthwhile, the Senate proposal “dilutes the pot of money that really needs to go to counties that have those old and aged facilities.”

Democrats in the Senate also are seeking $175 million for eight programs intended to help mentally ill offenders and the law enforcement officers and prison guards who deal with them. That’s about $85 million more than is in Brown’s budget plan.

Among the proposals is $12 million to train law enforcement officers to spot warning signs of mental Illness. They said the need for that training was demonstrated last month when Elliot Rodger killed six people, injured 13 and then killed himself in Isla Vista, a student housing community near the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Maguire supported Senate Democrats’ proposals for officer training and for $50 million in grants to counties for substance abuse treatment, job training and other programs to help mentally ill offenders.

Their plan also includes $24 million to train prison employees to work with mentally ill inmates and nearly $90 million for other programs to aid offenders with mentally health or substance abuse problems.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said the budget is likely to include many of the recommendations that grew out of seven hearings by the Assembly Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment, led by Ammiano and Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles.

They included spending more on rehabilitation, with part of the money earmarked to help veterans and people with mental illness. Other programs would focus on treating instead of incarcerating juveniles and drug addicts.

Senate Democrats’ proposal followed by six weeks an Associated Press story highlighting the decades-old trend in California and other states to send tens of thousands of mentally ill offenders to prisons as mental hospitals closed or were scaled back.

“It’s very clear that we’ve criminalized the mental health system over the last several decades,” said Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, chairman of the Senate Mental Health Caucus.

He added later that, “We need to have a system that provides mental health treatment not as a criminal act but as a public health issue.”