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California and the West

More Than 100 Mentally Ill to Be Let Out of Prisons

Courts: Majority were incarcerated for sex crimes. Action comes as a result of appellate ruling limiting circumstances under which parole can be revoked.

September 03, 1998|JULIE MARQUIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The state began releasing more than 100 mentally ill inmates from prisons on Wednesday as a result of an appellate court ruling that they could not be detained beyond their scheduled release dates, officials said.

More than half the inmates were incarcerated for sex crimes including child molestation, said Jim Nielsen, chairman of the Board of Prison Terms, which regulates parole violations. Some of the rest suffer from such conditions as severe psychosis, officials said.

Nielsen cautioned against public alarm, saying the court decision was a narrow one and that all of the prisoners will be under intensive parole supervision. Forty-six are going to be released to the streets statewide; 57 will go to board-and-care facilities. Others will go to locked treatment facilities, Nielsen said.

"The decision is not a good decision for public safety," Nielsen said, "because some dangerous people now may have access to victims that they did not have before."

But he said the intensive parole supervision means action can be taken if any danger presents itself.

Mental health activist Carla Jacobs of Long Beach, who received concerned calls from some of the inmates' families Wednesday, was skeptical.

"For a person with mental illness, [the parole system] is a disaster," she said. "There just aren't any facilities out there" adequate to treat them.

Jacobs fielded complaints that some prisoners already had left their assigned board-and-care homes.

The release is scheduled to go in phases, as fast as the cases can be processed, with the first contingent let out Wednesday, officials said.

The inmates targeted for release were a limited group--those whose parole had been revoked just as they were scheduled to be released from prison. The reason for the revocation was a psychiatric illness for which they needed continued treatment.

According to a July 24 appellate court decision, state law allows the board to revoke parole if a former prisoner is already in the community and is suffering mental illness without receiving necessary treatment. But the court found that the board could not revoke parole before the inmate had been released to the community.

"The court has said they have got to exit the prison and exhibit some kind of behavior," Nielsen said. It ruled that "we exceeded our statutory authority" in revoking parole outright, he said.

The decision results from a 1997 case in Contra Costa County Superior Court in which Barry Whitley--imprisoned for assault, false imprisonment, battery and other crimes--argued that his parole was unjustly revoked. It was taken away before he left prison on the grounds he needed psychiatric treatment that the community could not provide.

The state attorney general appealed the Contra Costa ruling in favor of Whitley but lost in the 1st District Court of Appeal. The release of prisoners occurred more than a month after the ruling because the state was given time to consider filing another appeal. The attorney general declined.

Nielsen said the court decision does not affect other important laws that serve to protect the public, and people should not fear that large numbers of mentally ill prisoners will be released.

For example, there are two laws--one applying to mentally disordered offenders and another covering violent sexual predators--that allow prisons to detain inmates beyond their terms if courts agree.

But these laws do not apply to all mentally ill inmates. In the case of the sexual predator law, for example, an inmate must be convicted of a sexually violent offense against two or more victims before he can be committed for two years to a treatment facility.

"These are generally the worst offenders," Nielsen said.

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