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

From a doctor who, police say, intentionally drove his Telsa off a cliff with his family inside, to a man accused of murder while under the care of the court, there is growing concern about who is eligible to avoid a felony conviction by participating in California’s 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 are allowing 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 state-wide success of the new Mental Health “Diversion” Courts. It’s also difficult to determine who the most successful program candidates are and how many of the “successful” participants re-offend after having their charges dropped. The data we obtained from counties and the state was largely contradictory or incomplete. 

Critics raise two primary concerns: 

  • Public Safety: Judges have limited discretion to deny someone Diversion out of concern for public safety. There must be evidence that a defendant will commit a “super strike” (i.e., rape or murder) within the two-year program period in order 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 amended to give judges more discretion related to public safety concerns. 

  • Accountability: State law now requires judges to automatically presume that nearly any mental illness is related to nearly any crime. Common disorders like ADAH, anorexia, marijuana dependency and erectile disorder are now considered eligible “mental illnesses” for people accused of felony crimes, including domestic violence, kidnapping and attempted murder.

    Critics argue that this change is allowing some defendants, whose disorders may not have meaningful connections to crimes, to have their charges dropped without facing accountability for their crimes or providing justice for their victims.  

Cesar: A Mental Health Court Success Story 

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

He’d been homeless for seven years when he was arrested for assault, high on meth laced with fentanyl.  

“I realized that I messed up and I could have hurt somebody. And it makes me feel bad,” Cesar said. 

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

Sacramento has been running its mental health treatment court for over a decade. It used to be exclusively a post-conviction program for people like Cesar who had already served time in jail. 

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

The court also connects defendants with support services through non-profits like Turning Point, which includes a case worker to help ensure participants make it to appointments. They may also get free or subsidized housing and employment assistance. 

Now that Cesar has successfully completed the program, his conviction has been erased. 

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

However, Not everyone is as successful as Cesar. California jail populations have decreased over the last decade, but both the number and percentage of inmates with mental illnesses have increased, according to research from the Public Policy Institute of California

Changes to Mental Health Diversion Programs 

In 2019, Governor Jerry Brown created a new *Pretrial* Mental Health Diversion Court program.

Unlike Cesar’s program, which was post-conviction, the pretrial diversion track allows defendants to suspend their prosecution and avoid conviction 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 that an estimated 61% of the Los Angeles County Jail mental health population may have been appropriate candidates for diversion programs.

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

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

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

They’re not all success stories

“Folks that shouldn’t be in there, because they do pose a threat to public safety are getting admitted,” said Rochelle Beardsley, Sacramento County’s Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney. 

Beardsley pointed to the example of Fernando Jimenez. He was charged with violently attacking his neighbor following a disagreement. Court records reveal he cracked the woman’s orbital socket. 

Jimenez was granted mental health diversion and while he was in the program he allegedly killed a man. He is now facing 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, might be a risk to public safety. 

“I have to prove that this particular defendant is going to commit a super strike offense within the two years,” Beardsley said. “That’s impossible for me to be able to prove.” 

She also notes that common disorders like ADHD, anorexia, marijuana dependency and erectile disorder are considered eligible “mental illnesses” for nearly any crime. 

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

Murder and sex crimes are not eligible for mental health diversion. 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 unanimously passed the Assembly Public Safety Committee this year. 

However, Assembly Apportions chair Buffy Wicks quietly killed the bill last month by holding it in the appropriations suspense file. Neither Wicks nor Assembly Appropriations staff responded to requests for comment. 

Dirty Data 

So how successful are California’s Mental Health Diversion courts? Well that depends on who you ask. Examples like Cesar and Jimenez are just anecdotes without reliable data.

 In an effort to figure out how successful mental health courts are, CBS News California gathered data from county courts and DA’s offices across the state and compared the counties’ success rate data to the county success rates listed on the state’s dashboard. 

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

The State Judicial Council acknowledged its data was incomplete, noting additional success-rate data could be available by July 2025.  

Promising but dated data 

A small-scale study of Sacramento’s Mental Health Treatment Court – before the new pretrial diversion system track – found graduates like Cesar who got treatment after serving jail time were 25% less likely to be arrested and 75% less likely to be hospitalized. 

Sacramento County was used as a case study by the state when creating a model for successfully implementing Mental Health Diversion courts in 2019. 

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

A different view of success 

After presiding over mental health court for over a decade, Sacramento County Judge Larry Brown has a different view of success. 

“It’s success the moment we connect them to a mental health provider. It’s a success when we get them on medication while they’re in jail,” Judge Brown said.  

He says he sees roughly 200 people a week, whom he gets to know through regular check-ins. 

“When some graduate like Cesar,” he said, “We’re truly going to miss him. He’s a delight. And he’s been a gentleman. That’s what’s great about this job,” he said. 

But without better statewide data, to show what’s working and what’s not, Judge Brown’s court and Cesar are simply anecdotes with great potential. 

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