Are California’s Mental Health Courts successful? That depends on who you ask because there’s no reliable data.

Are California’s Mental Health Courts successful? That depends on who you ask because there’s no reliable data.

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From a doctor who police say intentionally drove his Telsa off a cliff with his family inside, to a man accused of murder while in court care, there is growing concern about who is eligible to avoid a felony conviction California Mental Health Diversion Court.

There are also many success stories and studies that point to the potential for reduced recidivism among successful mental health court candidates. However, critics worry that recent changes to the law will allow some defendants to misuse California's recently expanded Mental Health Diversion Court program.

A CBS News California investigation found that there is no reliable data to track the statewide success of new mental health “diversion” courts. It is also difficult to determine who the most successful program candidates are and how many of the “successful” participants reoffend after their charges are dropped. The data we obtained from counties and the state was largely inconsistent or incomplete.

Critics raise two main concerns:

  • Public Safety: Judges have limited discretion to deny someone diversion because of public safety concerns. There must be evidence that a defendant will commit a “super strike” (ie, rape or murder) during the two-year period of the program for a judge to deny diversion due to public safety concerns.

    Critics argue that future crimes are nearly impossible to prove and that the law should be changed to give judges more discretion over public safety concerns.

  • Responsibility: State law now compels judges to automatically presume that almost any mental illness is connected to almost any crime. Common disorders such as ADAH, anorexia, marijuana dependence, and erectile dysfunction are now considered eligible “mental illnesses” for people charged with serious crimes, including domestic violence, kidnapping, and attempted murder.

    Critics argue that this change is allowing some defendants, whose disorders have no significant connections to the crimes, to withdraw their charges without facing responsibility for their crimes or providing justice for their victims.

Caesar: A Mental Health Court Success Story

The Mental Health Treatment Court gave Cesar a “second chance at life”.

He had been homeless for seven years when he was arrested for assault, with a large amount of meth with fentanyl.

“I realized I made a mistake and I could have hurt someone. And that makes me feel bad,” Cesar said.

After being arrested and serving time in the county jail, Cesar was given the opportunity to participate in the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Court.

Sacramento has been running its own mental health treatment court for more than a decade. It used to be a post-conviction program exclusively for people like César who had already served time in prison.

Participants with a diagnosed mental illness, which was a significant factor in their crime, are entitled to have their convictions dismissed. They must complete a 12- to 18-month post-conviction program, overseen by the probation department, and comply with regular drug tests, mental health treatment and make regular court appearances.

The court also connects defendants with support services through nonprofits like Turning Point, which includes a case worker to help ensure participants make appointments. They can also get free or subsidized aid for housing and employment.

Now that César has successfully completed the program, his conviction has been expunged.

“I didn't know another life until I got arrested. And I quit (drugs) cold turkey (in prison),” Cesar said during his graduation. “Now I'm sober. Now I see how a real man feels.”

However, not everyone is as successful as Caesar. California's prison population has declined over the past decade, but both the number and percentage of inmates with mental illness have increased, according to research by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Changes to mental health diversion programs

In 2019, Governor Jerry Brown created a new mental health diversion court program *Harm*.

Unlike Caesar's program, which was post-conviction, the pre-trial diversion pathway allows defendants to stay their prosecution and avoid sentencing altogether if they complete the 12- to 18-month treatment program.

But participation was initially limited with fewer than 2,000 participants in 2021, while a 2020 RAND study found an estimated 61 percent of the Los Angeles County Jail's mental health population could have been candidates suitable for diversion programs.

To expand access and increase participation, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a revised law, which went into effect in 2023.

Under the expanded mental health division law, defendants no longer have to prove that their diagnosed mental illness caused them to commit a crime. The revised law now forces judges to automatically presume that almost any mental illness was the reason for almost any crime, unless the prosecution can prove otherwise.

At least 41 counties now offer some version of adult mental health courts, and participation in diversion programs statewide has increased nearly 150 percent in two years.

Not all are success stories

“People who shouldn't be in there, because they pose a threat to public safety are being admitted,” said Rochelle Beardsley, Sacramento County Chief Assistant District Attorney.

Beardsley pointed to the example of Fernando Jimenez. He was accused of violently assaulting his neighbor following a disagreement. Court records reveal he broke the woman's orbital dam.

Jimenez was granted a mental health diversion and while on the show he supposedly killed a man He now faces murder charges in Placer County.

Beardsley said there is little prosecutors or judges can do if they feel someone, who is technically eligible for diversion, could be a risk to public safety.

“I have to show that this particular defendant will commit a superstrike offense within the two years,” Beardsley said. “That is impossible for me to prove.”

It also notes that common disorders such as ADHD, anorexia, marijuana addiction and erectile dysfunction are considered eligible “mental illnesses” for almost any crime.

For example, investigators say a Pasadena doctor intentionally drove his Tesla over the cliff at Devil's Slide in Pacifica with his wife and two young children inside. Because he says he suffers from depression and because his family survived, he is now seeking a mental health diversion instead of prosecution for attempted murder and child abuse.

Murder and sex crimes are not eligible for mental health referral. However, if a victim survives, attempted murder, kidnapping, and domestic violence are eligible.

A bill that would have made attempted murder ineligible for mental health diversion passed unanimously in the Assembly Public Safety Committee this year.

However, Assembly Appropriations Chairwoman Buffy Wicks quietly killed the bill last month by keeping it on the appropriations hold file. Neither Wicks nor Assembly Appropriations staff responded to requests for comment.

raw data

So how successful are California's mental health diversion courts? Well, that depends on who you ask. Examples like César and Jiménez are just anecdotes without reliable data.

In an effort to find out the success of mental health courts, CBS News California collected data from county courts and DA's offices across the state and compared the counties' success rate data to the rates of county success listed on the state dashboard.

Data were largely contradictory or incomplete. In some cases, the state cited county success rates much higher than the counties themselves.

The State Judicial Council acknowledged that its data was incomplete, and noted that additional success rate data may be available in July 2025.

Promising but dated data

A small-scale study of the Sacramento Mental Health Treatment Court, before the new pretrial diversion system, found that graduates like Cesar who received treatment after serving prison terms were 25 percent less likely to to be arrested and 75% less to be hospitalized.

Sacramento County was used as a case study by the state when it created a model for successfully implementing mental health diversion courts in 2019.

Sacramento was one of the few counties that provided CBS News with data fairly consistent with state data. It showed a Mental Health Diversion Court graduation rate of 66% over the past three years.

A different view of success

After presiding over the mental health court for more than a decade, Sacramento County Judge Larry Brown has a different take on success.

“It's a success the moment we connect them with a mental health provider. It's a success when we give them medication while they're in jail,” Judge Brown said.

He says he sees about 200 people a week, whom he knows through regular check-ins.

“When some graduate like Caesar,” he said, “he's really going to be missed. He's a delight. And he's been a gentleman. That's the best thing about this job,” he said.

But without better state-level data to show what works and what doesn't, Judge Brown and Caesar's court are simply anecdotes with great potential.



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