Members of a Senate committee said Wednesday they were moved by the plight of the state's mental health court system, which provides mentally ill offenders with a second chance to get their lives under control and avoid the revolving door of prison.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted not to recommend SB469, which would push the burden of funding the $6 million program to cash-strapped counties. But the program faces an uphill battle before a budget committee.
"I know we're all in a financial crisis," said Sen. Don Gustavson, R-Sparks. "But we need to find a way to make this work."
It was one of two bills discussed Wednesday that would implement some of the most feared cuts in the governor's $5.8 billion proposed budget. The other was SB476, which would require counties to foot the $24 million bill for juvenile corrections over the next biennium; opponents said it amounts to "an annihilation of the juvenile justice system."
Included in the governor's plan is cutting state general funds to parole services and three juvenile correctional camps: China Springs and Aurora Pines in Douglas County, and Spring Mountain in Clark County. They accommodate 160 youth and are funded jointly by county and state money.
Representatives from county governments said they can't afford all the programs the budget proposes pushing on to their tabs. In this case, they said, it could lead to unequal services between richer and poorer counties.
"It won't be a statewide system. It will be piecemeal, and that's not justice for the kids," said Robert Hadfield, representing a handful of northern Nevada counties.
Proponents of the mental health court system fought hard for their program, a voluntary alternative for people diagnosed with a mental illness and charged with a misdemeanor or low-level felony. Participants get housing and a case worker to help them with their psychotropic medications.
They meet weekly for at least a year with a judge, who holds them accountable for meeting treatment goals. Proponents say it's a far better way to rehabilitate mentally ill offenders than jail.
"The only way you can meet the needs of this population is intensive case management," said Kevin Schiller of Washoe County Social Services.
Stabilizing the participants keeps them off the streets, out of prisons, and out of the state's mental hospitals, according to Christy Craig of the Clark County Public Defender's Office.
She cited a case in which one young man cost the state $40,000 to get stabilized at Lake's Crossing mental hospital in Sparks.
"The state can pay the money up front through mental health courts, or pay for Lake's Crossing," Craig said, referring to the state mental hospital.
The senate committee's member said they opposed SB469 as a matter of policy, even though putting mental health court funding back in the budget will be a fight for other committees.
"They made a very strong case for ... the cost effectiveness of this program," said Sen. Valerie Wiener, D-Las Vegas. "It also has a piece of humanity in it."