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Families of the Mentally Ill Call for Better Treatment Not Better Jails in Alameda County

OAKLAND (KPIX) -- A group of activists and families dealing with mental illness have taken over the plaza in front of the Alameda County board of supervisors chambers. They are demanding the county put more money into community treatment rather than jails.

Members of Families Advocating for the Serious Mentally Ill (FASMI) set up tents outside the Alameda County building and they plan to stay there until Tuesday when they will ask the supervisors to reconsider spending $300 million to improve mental health services inside Santa Rita Jail. The money is being spent as part of a court settlement over mistreatment of the mentally ill at the facility.

"We want that money to be directed toward community treatment and that includes hospitals," said FASMI committee member Patricia Fontana. "We need more hospitals and we need better hospitals."

The jails have become the default source of crisis mental health care after the state closed most large mental hospitals in the 1960s and 1970s. Advocates said the correctional system is not equipped to handle a wide range of mental afflictions.

"They always try to categorize them as one 'mental illness' but schizophrenia is way different than other mental illnesses and they're the ones that don't get the help that they need," said Audrey Knight, mother of a mentally ill child.

Advocates said the overcrowded jails then release people as quickly as possible and it becomes a downward spiral, frequently causing those with serious conditions to hurt themselves or others.

"In fact, family members are told 'if you want to get some help, try to have your child arrested. Don't even mention mental illness because then we can't do anything.'"

They can't do anything because in 1967 a law was passed making it almost impossible to force someone into psychiatric treatment against their will. El Dorado County district attorney Vern Pierson said all the treatment facilities in the world won't help if the law says the mentally ill don't have to stay there.

"It was well-intentioned but it was wrong," he said. "You have an ecosystem of all these different parts and you change one of them without appreciating the downstream consequences of it. That's exactly what happened."

The families agree. They say they need the power to force treatment, if necessary, to help those who clearly cannot take care of themselves. But first, they say, the county and state must commit more resources to helping the mentally ill so they don't have to spend everything on the jail, dealing with the consequences.

"I really can't understand why they don't put a lot more money towards the mental illness because they're the ones that can't help themselves," Knight said.

In addition to Alameda County's money, advocates said they would also like to see Governor Newsom commit some of his $14 billion homelessness package toward providing more mental health treatment centers.

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