Sunday, August 29, 2010

In Fresno, Calif., mental health court may fall victim to budget cuts

From The Fresno Bee:

A Fresno man was sentenced August 25 to seven years and eight months in prison for running over an undercover officer's foot during his escape from a north Fresno store parking lot in January 2008.

Gilbert Jimenez apologized in Fresno County Superior Court for his actions, but said he acted in self-defense.

Police said Jimenez, 37, is a Bulldog gang member who got into a fight with Corben Whitney of the California Highway Patrol and Chris Wagner of the Department of Motor Vehicles outside the Ross Dress for Less store at First Street and Shaw Avenue.

Training police to handle situations involving people with mental illness is much-needed as officers deal with an increasing number of such calls, Fresno Police Jerry Dyer said Tuesday.

At a news conference announcing a three-day crisis intervention program that's under way in east-central Fresno, Dyer said his department had 8,500 mental illness-related cases last year -- and that number is growing.

The goal of the training, which ended August 27, is to better prepare officers when they respond to mental-illness incidents, known as "5150" calls, Dyer said.

Richard A. Ciummo & Associates has thrived by offering governments cut-rate contracts to provide public defender services in Fresno, Madera and five other California counties.

The Madera-based law firm has been called the Walmart of legal defense for the poor -- and just like the mega-retailer, the firm has created a lot of controversy.

While Ciummo & Associates has strong support from government administrators, it's drawn criticism from law professors and legal-aid groups who fear the firm's flat-rate contracts cheat indigent defendants of adequate representation.

Relatives of a Fresno man who was stabbed to death inside his Tower District home a year ago tearfully told a judge August 26 that they have lost faith in the jury system.

They wanted Darshae Dews, 19, to get life in prison without parole for murdering 44-year-old Arthur Lopez, who was stabbed 20 times.

But Fresno County Superior Court Judge Hilary Chittick said the law doesn't give her the authority to sentence Dews to that punishment.

At least one in three inmates released early from Fresno County Jail since 2008 has landed back in jail for new crimes -- sometimes within hours, an analysis by The Fresno Bee has found.

Many inmates were arrested and released repeatedly -- up to five times -- over a 28-month period.

It's unclear how many of the crimes might have occurred without early release. But Fresno police say the jail's revolving door is contributing to a recent spike in burglaries and auto thefts -- in part because repeat offenders know they have a good chance of getting released early.

Only two years after it started, a Fresno County program for criminal defendants with mental illness may fall victim to budget cuts, ending a model that has reduced crime in other places.

Started by Superior Court Judge Hilary Chittick, Behavioral Health Court places participants in treatment for drug abuse and psychological problems and tries to steer them away from crime.

Studies have found that mental health courts can keep the mentally ill out of trouble. Although it's too early for a complete report on Fresno County's program, initial results have been promising, Chittick said.

But county budget cuts have put the future of the program in doubt. The county funds most of the court's personnel, and department heads say it's uncertain whether they can continue. The state budget -- when approved -- may determine the court's fate.

Chittick and others in Behavioral Health Court said they hope the program will survive.

"Mental illness leads to recidivism," Chittick said. "In the long run, it's better to keep these people out of trouble and prevent future victimization."

The Behavioral Health Court is something of a hybrid -- part probation office, part support group. Court officials use a combination of discipline and feel-good measures to try to keep participants on the right path.

State officials say more attention must be given to the mentally ill in California's courts. More than half of the people behind bars in the country have a mental illness, according to a task force convened by Ronald M. George, chief justice of the California Supreme Court. The task force recently recommended that trial courts adopt specialized approaches to the mentally ill, such as mental health courts.

Statewide, 41 of 58 counties have a mental health court, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

Mental health courts reduce re-arrest rates by up to 45%, according to a report by the state task force.

Chittick and other Fresno County officials started the Behavioral Health Court in July 2008 after touring similar courts in other counties. Chittick said she has been concerned about the lack of assistance for mentally ill defendants since she worked in the Public Defender's Office about 20 years ago and represented a disturbed man who threatened a television personality.

In Fresno County, mental health court takes defendants after conviction in a traditional court, instead of determining their guilt, as some mental health courts do. Behavioral Health Court essentially serves as an expanded probation program. Individuals convicted of certain crimes -- including drug dealing, gang activity, and crimes causing serious injury -- are ineligible.

Participants also must be certified by a health professional as having a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Such illnesses make people lose touch with reality and more prone to commit crime, said Kristine Ruiz, a probation officer. The court's only full time employee, Ruiz meets with participants regularly to make sure they're meeting program requirements and otherwise find out what's happening in their lives.

Defendants in court recently showed how mental illness can create problems for themselves. The program's 15 participants must show up for court every other week and have Chittick review their cases.

In one recent session, Robert Posey, 48, tried to explain to Chittick how he was having problems with a woman who owed him money. Posey was previously convicted of assault.