For years, there has been an increasing need for criminal justice reform as it relates to the treatment of the mentally ill defendant. California jails are filling up with a higher and higher share of mentally ill people who have been accused of crimes. Many of these people have been deemed incompetent to stand trial. Ideally, these mentally ill defendants should be sent to state hospitals to receive proper care and treatment, but the state hospitals are full. With virtually every bed filled, and a waiting list sometimes six months long, a person charged with a lower level misdemeanor offense has no chance of making it to the state hospital for treatment. They are therefore often kept in the local jail where their mental condition is far less likely to improve and they are unlikely to be medicated.

The mentally ill bear a different level of responsibility for their actions than do the rest of us. Their inability to govern themselves, because of their illness, is no fault of their own, and yet because they cannot control their behaviors, they often find themselves in the county jail for long periods of time with no treatment options. We cannot deter mentally ill people from being mentally ill, but most of the time, jail is not where they belong—it’s just where the beds are.

It is important, even encouraging, to note that many of the rehabilitative services that these unfortunate people need already exist in Marin County's system of care. In some cases, these services have been under-developed, but in other cases they are simply underutilized, or altogether unknown to participants in the criminal justice system. The Court has long needed assistance from service providers to help get these defendants out of jail, enrolled in appropriate services and placed in adequate housing, while at the same time providing incentive and guidance, and sometimes a firm hand, for the defendant to comply with court and medical directives.

I am most pleased that the Marin County Bench, the Board of Supervisors, the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, Behavioral Health Services, Jail Mental Health, Marin General Hospital, local law enforcement, the Probation Department and the Public Guardians’ offices have all come together to try to address this longstanding problem. After months of hard work, dedication and great collaboration, the Marin County Court opened its new mental health court known as “Pathways.” Now, mentally ill defendants who face misdemeanor charges (and who do not qualify for other court approved programs) will be assigned to our new court. This court meets each week and is staffed by an exceptional group of professionals who are helping the court find the resources needed not only to help move these people through the system but also to provide them with needed mental health services, structure and case management. Once those services are in place, and a safety plan is implemented, these people can be released from custody with a future court date.

Since our start date of September 1, we have accepted 15 people into the court. Of those 15 people, one has been placed in a hospital setting, one was released and returned to custody for non-compliance and the rest have been released from custody with services, stable housing, medication and case management in place. Additionally, all defendants who have been released from incarceration have returned for their future court date as ordered. Although the program is still in its infancy, it appears to be working.

Acknowledgement and thanks must be given to some who have played a special role in all of this: Dori Ahana, Brian Morris, Tod Paler, Larry Jacobs, Shannon Kowalski, Connie Moreno-Peraza, Rebekah Reali, Carrie Coats, Juan Colonia, Darryl Roary, Michelle Funez Arteaga, Dr. Ryan Dunnigan, Dr. Jei Africa and Supervisor Connolly, for their continued support and leadership in this worthwhile endeavor.