Our country continues to witness an increasing mental illness. Studies demonstrate growing percentages of depression, suicide ideation, substance abuse, and our own observations cannot deny the growing rates of homelessness.  Inmate populations have swelled and research finds a direct correlation between the increasing mental health crisis in this country and increasing inmate populations.

Nationwide, around 64 percent of inmates held in county jail facilities have a mental illness. Any reasonable observation of the Orange County Jail population will lead to the conclusion that it is the largest mental health facility in the county. Indeed, the Orange County sheriff, Don Barnes, observed that the Orange County Jail has become just that, “by default.”  Virtually none of those inmates will receive proper health treatment in jail. Rather than addressing Orange County Jail’s mental health crisis by hiring more trained mental health professionals to treat those before they end up on jail, the county is just adding more space to house the ever-increasing inmate population.

And when those inmates have a mental health crisis, it is often law enforcement, not mental health professionals, that “treats” the patient. Law enforcement has the ultimate authority on how to treat an inmate suffering from a mental illness or crisis. That authority can override doctors’ orders. As to the treatment of inmates in a mental health crisis, a recent article by a former Orange County jail inmate described jail protocol for inmates who attempt suicide. The inmate is punished, not treated.  An inmate who attempts suicide is descended upon by guards and transferred to a cold cell (described as a walk-in refrigerator). The inmate is given only a stiff apron to put over their body (as any other article of clothing could be an instrument of suicide), which exposes much of the inmate’s body to the cold. The inmate is deprived of conversation and human contact, left alone and almost naked. The inmate subjected to these conditions will often recant their attempt and insist they are not suicidal in order to gain release from the “Suicidal” cell. This could hardly be called treatment.

It is estimated that nationwide, three out of every five incarcerated individuals with mental health conditions do not receive proper treatment. Even if your thought is “too bad, the inmate shouldn’t have committed the crime” it cannot be ignored that this is having a huge impact on society at large. Acknowledging that there are no easy answers, perhaps a portion of those inmates would not have committed the crime if they had been properly treated for their mental health condition before ending up in jail. And when those inmates are released, they most likely still suffer from mental illness, which may have been exacerbated by their stay in jail. This is not just an Orange County Jail crisis; this is a community crisis that must be meaningfully and honestly confronted. Not adequately treating –or worse, punishing – mentally ill inmates is something that affects us all. Most inmates will be eventually released to the community; many of those will bring mental illness with them. Most, if not all, will not receive adequate post-incarceration services to address their mental illness.

The recent pre-trial mental health diversion law and other diversion schemes, such as those meant to address substance abuse, may be a step in the right direction. But the problem is bigger than treating the few defendants who qualify and are put into diversion. The mental health crisis and the crime crisis go hand-in-hand. Perhaps it would be better to divert some of those funds going to build new jails to effective mental health services in the jails and in the community.

The bottom line is : Should a county jail be the county’s de facto mental health facility?

Criminal defense attorney William Weinberg has been defending those accused of a crime in Southern California for over 25 years. He offers a complimentary consultation where he will review the charges and evidence against you and advise you of your defense options.  He may be reached at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at