California Bill Would Urge Shorter Sentences For Veterans With Mental Health Problems

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A bill that passed the California Assembly Wednesday would require judges to consider a veteran’s mental health status in sentencing. The bill is one of several the legislature is considering to deal with veterans in the criminal justice system, according to the Associated Press.

Bill author Marc Levine cited statistics finding that one in five returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that sometimes explains why an untreated individual turned to crime.

Judges are already required under existing law to assess whether convicted defendants were a member of the military, and whether they suffer from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual trauma, or other illness that could affect their mental state. The bill dictates that judges weigh this factor in favor of a shorter sentence for felons, and in favor of probation over prison time for all defendants. During probation, individuals may be subject to treatment.

Favoring treatment over jail time for any inmates would be a positive development for California, where prisons continue to be so overcrowded that the state is subject to federal monitoring for conditions that were deemed cruel and unusual by the U.S. Supreme Court. California has come under particular fire for its neglect of mentally ill inmates.

And a new report out this week adds to the evidence that prisons have become de facto asylums for the mentally ill after a decrease in the number of psychiatric beds. But the study found that inmates come out of prisons and jails sicker than they went in, and are particularly likely to re-offend if not funneled into treatment.