The solution to bigotry against one group cannot be bigotry against another. In a Feb. 14 op-ed in the Mercury News, Daniel Chung, a deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County, blamed California criminal justice reforms like mental health diversion for the recent, horrific attacks on people of Asian descent.
His baseless assertion fans the flames of fear and prejudice against those with mental illness. His recycled “tough on crime” solution is the same backward thinking that brought the sins of mass incarceration upon California and led to the disproportionate incarceration of people of color and persons with mental illness.
Unfortunately, shame and fear often stall our conversation about mental health. This can be particularly true in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, where cultural barriers can impede engagement with mental health treatment.
When he implies that those who suffer mental illness are dangerous and need to be locked up, he is fueling that fear and shame. The deputy district attorney insinuates that those with mental illness are more likely to commit violent acts; the fact is that those with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime, not the perpetrators.
Repeating harmful myths further isolates and marginalizes those who are affected by mental health conditions. As a community, we should be educating ourselves with facts about mental health and become advocates for effective and empathetic policies that encourage treatment and health rather than incarceration.
Jails and prisons are not mental health treatment facilities. Incarceration exacerbates mental illness. Those with mental illness are routinely victimized in custody and at a higher risk for suicide; they are held in unsanitary conditions and in solitary confinement without proper clothing or bedding in accordance with “safety protocols.” Isolation without comprehensive, psychological treatment leads to a deterioration in mental health. Any previous connections to healthcare or benefits often are severed by the time the individual is released.
Being released with a criminal conviction further hinders the ability to obtain housing and employment.
When someone commits an act because of a mental illness, the opportunity for treatment in mental health court can be life-altering. Often, a person has no prior criminal record and is experiencing the initial onset of mental illness. Rather than locking them away without treatment, the opportunity to participate in mental health court provides strong incentives and motivation to engage in treatment.
The individual is clinically assessed by social workers and provided a case manager, counselor, psychiatrist, and housing assistance. This treatment team gets even stronger with the inclusion of the individual’s family; when families are educated and supported, they are powerful motivators for their loved one’s success. With frequent court reviews and support from a collaborative team, the individual can thrive.
In the past decades, California has not meaningfully funded alternatives to incarceration. As a result, jails and prisons have become the new asylums. Those who suffer with mental illness are released untreated and traumatized; they often become homeless and revolve right back into custody. We now see the devastating toll this has taken. When we acknowledge that mental health conditions are illnesses and seek to treat them, justice is served. The individual is safer and healthier and less likely to re-offend; our communities are safer and stronger because we have achieved accountability and healing without vengeance.
Asian American Criminal Trial Lawyers Association
Kathy Forward, Consultant & Retired Executive Director, NAMI-Santa Clara County
Elaine Peng, President & Founder, Mental Health Association for Chinese Communities (MHACC)
Mairead O’Keefe, Supervising Deputy Public Defender, Mental Health Team
Chris Yuen, Deputy Public Defender, Mental Health Diversion Team