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The Number of Mentally Ill Inmates in California Jails Is Rising

A new policy brief uses psychotropic medications as a proxy for mental illness, and finds that, despite criminal justice reforms in the state, the population of mentally ill inmates in jails is growing.

The push for prison reform in California has significantly affected the state's county jails as well. In 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled that California had to do something to reduce the population in its overcrowded prisons and provide better treatment for the incarcerated mentally ill. To ease the burden on the prison system, the state downgraded non-violent drug and property crimes, and offenders no longer eligible for prison terms were funneled into county jail facilities.

While around one million people cycle through California's jails every year, the jail system has not received as much public or research attention as state-level prison facilities, which means less is known about the inmate population in county jails. But a new policy brief shows that things may be getting worse for mentally ill inmates in California jails.

The brief, which used data from the Board of State and Community Corrections on 45 counties across the state, shows that, between 2012 and 2017, the portion of the jail population taking psychotropic medications rose by 25 percent. As the number of individuals taking these medications increases, so too do the costs to county jails. Of those 45 counties, 41 reported expenditures to the BSCC, and those spent nearly $8.5 million on psychotropic drugs in 2016. Today, a fifth of the state's jailed population is taking such medications.

While this latest brief can't provide an answer as to why the number of mentally ill inmates may be increasing in jails, it does provide policymakers with a better understanding of the jailed population—the first step toward creating policies to help this vulnerable population.