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What Options Do Law Enforcement Have for Assisting Incarcerated Mentally Ill Individuals?

Recent cases in Orange County and Los Angeles, California involving mentally ill individuals whose safety was jeopardized during or immediately after their incarceration have raised questions about the obligation of law enforcement to protect mentally ill prisoners from injury or harm. A lawyer cites two cases to examine the responsibilities and options of law enforcement to assist such prisoners. 

In September 2009, a young woman named Mitrice Richardson went missing after her early morning release from the Lost Hills/Malibu Sheriff’s Station. Richardson had dined at a Malibu restaurant while in possession of neither her purse nor cell phone and, consequently, could not pay her $89 bill, prompting the staff to contact the Sheriff’s Department. She was taken into custody and her car impounded. Despite indications that she may have been mentally unstable, authorities released her at midnight with no source of money, communication, or transportation. Her badly decomposed body was found several months later in a remote Malibu Canyon ravine, reported the Los Angeles Times

A similar, though not-as-tragic case occurred in February 2012 in Orange County, California. Matt Hoff, a severely mentally ill 18-year-old who had spent most of his life institutionalized, was arrested for stealing and sentenced to 60 days in Orange County Central Jail in Santa Ana. To the dismay of his family, he was released at 4 a.m. one morning and disappeared. Ultimately, despite his family’s effort to locate Hoff, it was Santa Ana police who found and booked Hoff for possession of narcotics, reported the Orange County Register and the OC Weekly

These two cases elicited public criticism concerning the extent to which authorities should have protected these mentally ill individuals from injury or harm, explains a lawyer. Under California law, while law enforcement has no general duty to provide assistance, authorities are obligated to ensure the safety of mentally ill individuals in certain situations, such as while they are incarcerated or when the state creates a risk or the state’s actions place the suspect or prisoner in a more dangerous situation than he or she would have been. Other than these instances, the options of authorities to aid incarcerated mentally ill individuals are rather limited. 

Options for Police and Law Enforcement

While law enforcement is expected to help those who are mentally ill and in custody, their actual options for doing so are limited. In a prison context, especially, it can be challenging to address the needs of the mentally ill. Many of the behaviors that are characteristic of mental illness, such as self-mutilation, destruction of property, screaming or kicking cell doors or other property, or keeping cells untidy, are all offenses that can subject a prisoner to discipline. 

Unfortunately, the mental health of prisoners generally is not taken into account in prison disciplinary hearings.  In fact, as the court said in Coleman, "There is substantial evidence in the record of seriously mentally ill inmates being treated with punitive measures by the custody staff to control the inmates’ behavior without regard to the cause of the behavior, the efficacy of such measures, or the impact of those measures on the inmates’ mental illnesses."  

Taking mental illness under consideration, however, could seriously undermine the disciplinary process. There is concern that selective enforcement of disciplinary rules could create an unsafe and chaotic environment, putting guards and other prisoners in danger. Further, prisoners who do not suffer from mental illness could attempt to claim a mental problem in order to avoid consequences of their actions. 

When a prisoner is released after serving his sentence, or when police arrest someone who is mentally ill, there are similarly few options available to help ensure safety. It is, of course, not constitutionally permitted to detain someone indefinitely, even if there is a suspicion that person is mentally ill. Law enforcement can declare a 5150 if they have a reasonable belief that the person is a danger to himself or to others and a 72-hour psych evaluation may be ordered, but beyond this, the mentally ill individual may be free to go as he chooses.  Another and more permanent option, involuntary commitment, is subject to very rigorous standards and having someone involuntarily committed is extremely difficult to achieve in the state of California. 

Unfortunately, this leads to a situation where the mentally ill are often set free from prison or after an arrest with little assistance and few precautions to protect them from injury or harm, which, arguably, occurred in Orange County and Los Angeles, explains a lawyer. Not only is this a danger to society, but it also sets up a situation where law enforcement faces potentially significant liability in cases like that of Mitrice Richards who may have been negligently released by California law enforcement.  

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