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In 2013, our nation made great strides towards improving the lives of individuals living with mental illness. Through the implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s final rules on mental health parity, as well as the requirement that mental health and substance use disorder coverage be included in insurance plans as essential health benefits, mental health issues will finally be treated on par with other medical conditions.

Already, 2014 is shaping up to be a big year for mental health in California, especially as it relates to the connection between mental health and criminal justice. This will be a great opportunity for our members to engage in advocacy that will have a tremendous impact on thousands of individuals.

In 1998, the legislature created the Mentally Ill Offender Crime Reduction (MIOCR) Grant program. The program allowed for counties to fund mental health courts and other collaborative programs meant to divert individuals living with mental illness away from the criminal justice system and into treatment programs. Counties were also granted funding for providing re-entry services that included job training. Unfortunately, the funding for this program was cut due to the budget crisis of 2008-2009.

This year, fortunately, Senator Darrell Steinberg, in his last year in office, is proposing to renew funding for this important program at $50 million, split evenly between adult and juvenile programs. The monies will be distributed to counties based on a competitive grant process. If you live in a county that lacks a mental health court or other diversion-treatment programs, this is a great opportunity to engage in both state and local advocacy by supporting the legislation, and lobbying your county to apply for the funding.

In the Assembly, leaders are laser-focused on realignment and finding new and innovative ways to reduce incarceration and recidivism among individuals with mental health and substance abuse problems. The Assembly Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment, Chaired by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (San Francisco), is holding a series of hearings on this topic, hearing from local law enforcement officials, public defenders, district attorney’s, judges, advocates, and community members around the state to inform their approach to reinvesting public safety dollars into programs that really work! The hearings have revealed what we already know: that the best way to reduce recidivism among individuals with mental health and substance abuse disorder is to get them treatment and give them opportunities to succeed. The Assembly hopes to facilitate these outcomes through “Collaborative Justice Courts” and re-entry programs.

Collaborative justice courts combine judicial supervision with treatment and rehabilitation services that are court monitored and focused on recovery to reduce recidivism and improve offender outcome. These courts include mental health courts, drug courts and veteran courts, among others. The inception of these courts was based on the understanding that individuals living with mental illness or substance use disorder—sometimes resulting from the negative effects of participating in combat—may take actions as a result of these conditions that do not reflect the true will of the individual. Keeping this in mind, these courts attack the root problem—the illness—rather than the symptoms—the actions taken as a result of that illness. The Assembly is potentially seeking up to $20 million to support these programs across the state.

With an in-house lobbyist position here at NAMI California for the first time, we are excited to have a strong and consistent voice in the Capitol this year. We’ve already met with the Assembly Budget Committee Chair and staff members for Senator Steinberg to engage in the budget negotiations around the aforementioned policies.

In addition to our advocacy, we are committed to engaging our affiliates in an effort to ensure that these programs receive funding and that other legislation that will positively impact the lives of individuals living with mental illness has the support it needs to pass.

NAMI California is launching the “Capitol Coalition,” hoping to engage with local Northern California NAMI affiliates to build a stronger voice at the Capitol. Coalition members will tell their stories and share their opinions on policies before the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission (MHSOAC) and provide testimony on important legislation. Members will receive NAMI Smarts for Advocacy training, be briefed on all matters before the Mental Health Services Administration by NAMI California staff ahead of meetings, and attend monthly calls about on-going advocacy efforts.

As the statewide organization, we certainly have a high level of legitimacy in the Capitol. But our voice can never replace the voices of our affiliates and members who are fighting these battles every day. It is that voice that speaks to the depth and diversity of experiences of people living with mental illness and their family members in California. The legislature needs to hear from all of us, whether we all agree or not. They need more than arguments; they need the people, the stories—they need to hear the truth from those who live it. Our sincerest hope is that we can activate our membership and empower you to lead the way on important policy issues impacting your lives.

Here are the ways you can get involved:

  • Join NAMI’s Capitol Coalition
    • Receive NAMI Smarts for Advocacy Training, attend briefing calls ahead of MHSAOAC meetings, attend OAC Meetings in person or via phone, attend legislative hearings and meetings with legislators.
  • Visit Your Legislator in the District Office
  • Submit Support / Oppose Letters on Legislation
  • Attend Mental Health Awareness Day
  • Join NAMI CAN Conference Calls

We are currently reviewing newly introduced and amended legislation that we may be supporting in the next year.

We will keep you updated on our progress! And we hope you will join us.

Caliph Assagai, J.D.
Legislation and Public Policy Director
NAMI California