SLO County Mentally Ill Deserves Treatment, Not More Jail


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Joseph Perez of Atascadero wears a soft cast after wrist surgery in a photo taken July 1, 2021. The Atascadero Police Department alleges that Perez accosted an officer with his soft cast during a mental health wait in Twin Cities Hospital in Templeton in June 2021.

Can we all agree that living with mental illness is not a crime?

Like cancer, heart disease or diabetes, it is not a disease that patients deliberately bring on themselves.

Yet many who are diagnosed with schizophrenia and other serious brain disorders continue to be treated like criminals when they act out.

While many politicians talk a good game about treating, rather than incarcerating, mentally ill defendants, the reality on the ground is quite different.

Take Joseph Perez d’Atascadero, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 19.

Now 36, he faces criminal charges stemming from incidents that occurred while he was going through mental health crises – a situation that has been brought to light thanks to excellent reporting by Tribune writers Chloe Jones and Sara Kassabian.

Perez’s family and his lawyer, Trace Milan, are fighting to ensure Perez gets the treatment he needs, rather than risk having him locked up in a cell for offenses he allegedly committed while he was not. unaware of his actions.

“Obviously someone in this county needs help,” Milan said. “I can’t imagine there is anyone who needs this more than this young man.”

Did SLO county man use ‘death‘weapon’?

Perez and his family have been through hell for the past few months since Perez was charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer with a ‘deadly weapon’ – a soft cast he had on the arm – while at Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton awaiting mental health.

This is an exaggerated false accusation. The police officer involved complained of pain, but no serious or even moderate injuries were reported.

A few months after the June 2021 incident at the hospital, Perez was arrested again after allegedly throwing a ceramic figurine at his mother. He also threw a rock at his parents.

Again, no injuries were reported.

Perez’s mother, Lisa Kania, reluctantly agreed to his arrest over this incident, believing he would receive the treatment he needed.

Instead, he spent six months locked up in San Luis Obispo County Jail, where he was sent after being found unfit to stand trial.

Under a 2021 appeals court ruling, Perez should have been transferred to a public psychiatric hospital or other treatment center within 28 days of her declaration of lack of jurisdiction for the trial, but Kania said that ‘he had been given excuses as to why it hadn’t happened.

“The judge blamed COVID,” she said.

She also learned that there were 1,200 people on a hospital waiting list – a list that has since grown to 1,900.

And after?

Perez is now free on bail, but he still faces jail time if convicted of the criminal charges.

However, there is a chance that he will be accepted into the County Mental Health Diversion Court. If this happens, he will be enrolled in an outpatient clinic treatment program that includes weekly visits with a county psychologist, psychiatrist and social worker, and group therapy four days a week.

“At least we could get some support,” Kania said.

If Perez passes the program, the criminal charges against him could be dropped.

However, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office has been uncertain whether Perez is a good candidate for the outpatient program.

A clinical psychologist who examined Perez found that he met the criteria for admission to the program, according to a copy of the assessment Kania provided to The Tribune.

“If he remains consistently compliant with medication, and monitoring of this is built into his treatment plan, future decompensation and abuse of this type appear avoidable as he does not appear to be angry, hostile or unstable in nature, nor does he merely reacting to the presence of mental health symptoms that led to erratic and aggressive behavior,” the psychologist wrote.

If Perez is not allowed to participate in the program, his attorney said he will pursue a plea of ​​not guilty on account of insanity. But Milan believe diversion court is a better option.

“What’s wrong with letting him in, even if it fails?” Milan asked.

Low acceptance rate

This same question can be asked in hundreds of other cases.

Only a small percentage of diversion applicants are accepted into the SLO County program.

According to an analysis by Tribune, 59 out of 277 applicants were allowed in between March 2019 and April 2022, an acceptance rate of 21%. Of those 59, so far only five have successfully completed the program and had their charges dismissed.

Why so low?

Officials say people with schizophrenia can have a hard time in the program because they don’t do well in groups — and group therapy is an important component.

That being the case, wouldn’t it make sense to offer a program more suited to their needs?

Certainly, the lack of funding and personnel – as well as the difficulty of hiring experienced staff given the current shortage of workers – are obstacles.

But that’s no reason to ignore this care crisis.

We should not be arresting people suspected of relatively minor offenses committed while dealing with mental health issues.

We should not imprison them for months without being convicted of a crime.

And we should not limit access to local mental health treatment aimed at helping the very people who are turned away.

We can’t shake our heads sympathetically and at the same time pretend that this doesn’t really concern us.

Nor can we wait for the state to act on Governor Gavin Newsom’s CARE court proposal that would mandate treatment for people with serious mental illness.

People like Joseph Perez need help now – not in a year or two when another program and/or more funding strength come.

A first step is to determine the scope of the need. We urge the Board of Overseers to hold a public hearing on unmet mental health needs in San Luis Obispo County.

We also urge the district attorney’s office to accept Perez’s placement in a diversion program.

But we cannot stop there.

As Perez’s mother points out, many other people with similar needs are not getting the treatment they deserve.

“I’m not just worried about Joseph, but about people who don’t have families,” she said. “I can’t even imagine what they’re going through.”

This story was originally published June 14, 2022 5:30 a.m.

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