Saturday, June 19, 2010

Napa County Grand jury faults jail care for mentally ill

A Napa County grand jury report found that the Napa County Department of Corrections is not equipped to aid a growing population of mentally ill inmates.

“NCDC staff reported the number of mentally ill individuals is increasing and that mental health services are insufficient to handle those individuals,” the report says.

Several jail staff members told grand jurors the jail is not equipped to provide housing, psychiatric treatment and medication for those who need it, the report said.

In 2009, two inmates committed suicide and three others attempted suicide. One inmate, having what appeared to be a psychotic breakdown, assaulted a corrections officer, the grand jury said.

Inmates at the jail include patients from Napa State Hospital who are awaiting trial for alleged violent offenses committed at Napa State, the report notes.

Jail staff can not always separate mentally ill inmates from the general population, the report said. Staff can provide only three hours of counseling services per week via closed circuit television.

Staff members can’t require that mental health patients take medications. When those patients refuse, it increases the risk they might injure themselves, other inmates or staff, the report says.

NCDC Director Lenard Vare agreed with many grand jury findings, saying the jail’s mission is much different than that of Napa State Hospital, where the inmates often come from.

“It is an enormous burden on my corrections officers because they’re higher risk,” he said. “The officers are at higher risk from assaults and other violent behavior from the mental health inmates.”

“It’s a traumatic event for any normal person coming to jail, but for a mentally ill person there are issues they have to deal with,” Vare said.

Managing mentally ill inmates is more expensive and requires more resources for the jail, he said. They often stay at the jail for months as their cases go through the court system, he said.

“I don’t believe the jail is necessarily the best place to house a person with serious mental health issues,” Vare said.

The grand jury also criticized assumptions the county made regarding evidence-based practices and how they will affect recidivism, or repeat offending. Evidence-based practices are those that have been shown to reduce recidivism.

These assumptions could lead to problems as the county rolls out its Adult Correctional System Master Plan, a blueprint for the jail and other adult correctional needs in the next 20 years, the grand jury said.

The plan projects what the future needs will be based on inmate populations. The county used general system trends from 1996 through 2006 to determine that the population of the jail could be between 424 and 472 by 2025.

However, if certain evidence-based practices are added within the justice system, the total jail population would only be 324 in 2025, the county says.

The grand jury pointed out that the definition of recidivism varies. Jurors were wary of counting on evidence-based practices to lower jail populations so dramatically. The county does not track recidivism, the report said.

“Without a tracking system in place, how is it possible to evaluate the effectiveness of existing rehabilitation/treatment programs?” the report asks.

The master plan says evidence-based practices can reduce recidivism up to

30 percent, but the jury wasn’t finding the supporting research. "Assumptions should be based on something stronger than ‘coulda,’ woulda’ or ‘shoulda,’” the report says.

The worst-case scenario is that the county builds a new jail, then realizes that its inmate projections were incorrect, the report says.

Vare said that recidivism is a county-wide issue, not just for the jail. The criminal justice committee has a definition and is talking about how agencies are going to track it, he said.

The jail does keep records of every inmate that has been in its custody going back for some time, he said.

The county still needs more time to see how its Community Corrections Service Center, a program for certain offenders on probation or in custody that opened in March 2009, is affecting repeat offenders, Vare said.

The county has until Aug. 19 to respond to the grand jury, said Molly Rattigan, a management analyst in the county’s executive office. “That gives us time to really look at the recommendations and the findings that they gave,” she said.

Until then, she and Chief Probation Officer Mary Butler declined to comment on the report.

Jury foreman John Morris said he is prohibited by law from commenting further on the report.

He did say the jury tried to be reasonable in its recommendations and commend things the county is doing well. “We’re not just here to tear things down,” he said.

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