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May 28, 2014
Editorial: Legislators search for answers to Isla Vista

UCSB_memorial.JPG(May 28 - By the Editorial Board)

As Californians reel from last weekend's mass killings in Santa Barbara, the wrenching question is what more, if anything, could have been done.

California has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. When Elliot Rodger's frantic mother contacted authorities in April, Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies went to his apartment but found insufficient evidence to hold him.

When, as a child, he displayed symptoms of emotional disturbance, his parents found therapists for him. The massacre happened anyway.

Nonetheless, the inevitable question looms large as lawmakers, like the rest of us, search for sense in the aftermath of massacre.

Some Democratic lawmakers have called for a kind of restraining order that would let family members notify authorities when a loved one is at risk of committing the kind of violence that Rodger committed, and possibly remove his or her access to firearms.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg on Wednesday proposed $36 million worth of mandated training for law enforcement and prison personnel in dealing with mental illness.

The former proposal deserves consideration, though it would have to be carefully crafted to prevent abuses; the latter has undeniable merit.

Much of front-line police work has come down to dealing with unstable people, and cops have preparation that is spotty and optional.

Better training surely would have made a difference in the beating death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia and was killed by Fullerton police in 2011.

In the Isla Vista case, better training might have helped, too, leading the Santa Barbara sheriff's deputies to, for example, dig deeper after that call from Rodger's mother, or to question his roommates, or to check the gun registries that might have revealed his gun cache. Or better training might simply have prompted the authorities to hang around the troubled young man just a little longer, making time for his mental illness to do what mental illness does - reveal itself.

That said, the massacre in Santa Barbara has pointed up a hard truth about public policy and mental illness: Incidents like that are the exception, not the rule.

Right now, the biggest crisis involving criminal justice and mental illness in California isn't about young men breaking down in college enclaves. It's in our state prisons, where, according to a study by the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project, 45 percent of California prison inmates were treated for mental illness within the past year. The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports 29.4 percent of inmates have a mental illness diagnosis.

Steinberg's law enforcement training proposal arose from a package of bills he and other legislators are proposing aimed at helping criminals who are mentally ill. The bills had been in the works long before the Isla Vista killings.

Steinberg wants to spend $174.6 million to add much-needed mental health courts, expand substance abuse treatment and re-entry programs for mentally ill offenders, improve parole supervision for mentally ill ex-cons and provide housing and mental health care for those paroled under the reform of the state's "three-strikes" law. The governor and Assembly have put forth some similar proposals, all funded from money that was saved earlier this year when federal judges gave the state two more years to ease prison crowding.

Steinberg's bills could be effective. Improved police training, better supervision of mentally ill parolees and more mental health courts might not stop the next Elliot Rodger. But they might, and that surely is worth an investment in what we can do.