Report 2013-103 Summary - October 2013

Armed Persons With Mental Illness:

Insufficient Outreach From the Department of Justice and Poor Reporting From Superior Courts Limit the Identification of Armed Persons With Mental Illness

HIGHLIGHTS

Our audit of the reporting and identification of persons with mental illness who are prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm (armed prohibited persons) highlighted the following:

  • The Department of Justice (Justice) has not sufficiently reached out to the superior courts (courts) or mental health facilities to remind them to promptly report required information and cannot identify all armed prohibited persons in California effectively.
  • Many courts were not aware of state law requiring them to report individuals to Justice when the courts make certain mental health determinations—the 34 courts we surveyed indicated they had not reported about 2,300 of these determinations collectively over a three-year period.
  • None of the three courts we visited fully complied with state law because they failed to report all of their required determinations, such as those that determined that individuals were mentally incompetent to stand trial or those deemed a danger to others.
  • Each of the courts we visited varied in their interpretation of state law's current requirement to report determinations to Justice immediately.
  • We identified 22 mental health facilities that Justice had not contacted about reporting requirements.
  • Justice has struggled to keep up with its existing workload—it has at times had a daily backlog of cases waiting for initial review that exceeded the informal cap of 1,200 cases.
  • There is a lack of supervisory review, and three of the eight decisions regarding armed prohibited person status we reviewed were incorrect.
  • Justice reported that more than 20,800 persons were still deemed to be armed prohibited persons as of July 2013, and these persons had not had their firearms confiscated.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

The Department of Justice (Justice) manages California's effort to identify firearm owners in the State who are prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm because of a mental health-related event in their life. Justice refers to these individuals as armed prohibited persons. Justice attempts to identify armed prohibited persons by matching its records of firearm owners against reports about individuals with mental illness that it receives from superior courts (courts) and mental health facilities. Although it relies on information from courts and mental health facilities to identify these persons, Justice had not sufficiently reached out to the courts or mental health facilities to remind them to promptly report this required information. In addition, Justice needs to improve its controls over processing the information it does receive from reporting entities, because key decisions, such as whether a person is prohibited, are left to staff whose work does not receive a supervisory review. Because of these issues, Justice cannot identify all armed prohibited persons in California as effectively as it should, and the information it uses to ensure public safety by confiscating firearms is incomplete.

Although state law requires courts to report individuals to Justice whenever the courts make certain mental health determinations, many courts in the State were not aware of these requirements. We surveyed 34 courts that did not appear to be reporting these determinations, and their collective responses indicated that they had not reported about 2,300 mental health determinations to Justice over the three-year period from 2010 through 2012, the focus period of this audit. Additionally, several courts indicated that, generally due to system limitations, they could not provide us with the number of reportable determinations they had failed to report. Before our audit, Justice had not reached out to the courts to remind them about the reporting requirements, and it still has not followed up with nonreporting courts to confirm that they had no reportable determinations.

Further, we visited three courts that did report information to Justice during the audit period, but they did not fully comply with state law because they failed to report all of their required court determinations. For example, we found that the Mental Health Courthouse at the Los Angeles Superior Court (Los Angeles Court) was unaware of several court determinations it was required to report. Among these were those that determined that individuals were mentally incompetent to stand trial or that an individual is a danger to others. Additionally, we found that the San Bernardino Superior Court (San Bernardino Court) had not reported any of the determinations we reviewed of individuals deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial. Further, the Santa Clara Superior Court (Santa Clara Court) did not notify Justice about any of its determinations that an individual was to be committed to a mental health facility for an extended period or that an individual's conservatorship was to be terminated early. We also found that these courts varied in their interpretations of state law's current requirement to report determinations to Justice immediately. Legislation signed by the governor in October 2013 will change this requirement effective January 1, 2014. This change will give courts more time to report to Justice than the 24 hours given to mental health facilities, which are also required to report certain individuals to Justice. Because the information courts report is important for public safety, we question this change.

Additionally, Justice was not aware of and has not reached out to all mental health facilities in the State that were approved to treat reportable individuals. By comparing Justice's facilities outreach list to a list of approved mental health facilities, we identified 22 mental health facilities that Justice had not contacted about reporting requirements. When it does not reach out to all mental health facilities in the State, Justice risks being unable to identify all armed prohibited persons because the mental health facilities may not know about the reporting requirements or how or when to report such individuals.

However, if additional mental health facilities and courts were to report prohibiting events, Justice's workload would increase, and it has struggled to keep up with its existing workload. Justice's Armed and Prohibited Persons unit (APPS unit) in its Bureau of Firearms has at times had a daily backlog waiting for initial review that exceeded the informal cap Justice set of 1,200 pending matches. For example, Justice reported that a significant rise in the Armed Prohibited Persons System backlog during late 2012 and early 2013 coincided with a rise in the number of required background checks for firearm purchases. At the time the background check workload increased, Justice reports that it shifted APPS unit staff to complete these checks, and we found Justice did not meet its own internal deadline for completing initial reviews of potential armed prohibited persons. Justice could again face similar challenges.

Further, current weaknesses in Justice's workload management and controls over information it receives demonstrate that it may be unprepared for an increase in workload. Justice needs to improve its controls over processing the information about persons with mental illness that it receives from reporting entities. For some of the report records we reviewed, Justice had not entered information it received into the databases that would make the information available for the APPS unit to review. Additionally, we found that some key staff decisions, such as determining that a specific individual is not an armed prohibited person, are not subject to supervisory review once staff complete training. In fact, three of eight such decisions we reviewed were incorrect, and the lack of supervisory review may have contributed to these incorrect decisions. Similarly, decisions to delete prohibition information in the Mental Health Firearms Prohibition System (mental health database) do not require supervisory review. If Justice improved its controls over this information, it would reduce the risk of failing to identify all armed prohibited persons and it would have all the information necessary to ensure public safety through firearms confiscation.

The need for improvements to Justice's identification of armed prohibited persons has recently taken on greater importance due to an increase in funding to aid in the confiscation of firearms from those prohibited persons. In May 2013 the governor signed into law an appropriation of $24 million to provide additional support to Justice's effort to confiscate firearms from armed prohibited persons. Over the two-year period ending in May 2013, Justice had completed a total of three confiscation sweeps, which, in addition to its ongoing confiscation efforts, collected a total of nearly 4,000 firearms from armed prohibited persons. However, Justice reported that more than 20,800 persons were still deemed to be armed prohibited persons—for a variety of reasons not limited to mental health—as of July 2013, and these persons had not had their firearms confiscated. In response to the new appropriation, Justice has begun the process of hiring additional enforcement agents. However, these agents will rely on the information that Justice receives from reporting entities and that its staff review and make determinations about. Therefore, it is critical that Justice improve its outreach and internal processes so its agents can better protect the public from armed prohibited persons.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To ensure that it has the necessary information to identify armed prohibited persons with mental illness, Justice should at least once a year consider information about court reporting levels and request that courts it determines may be underreporting forward all required case information.

To ensure that all required prohibited individuals are reported to Justice, the three courts we visited—Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Santa Clara—should ensure that they implement procedures to report all types of determinations that state law requires.

The Legislature should amend state law to specify that all mental health-related prohibiting events must be reported to Justice within 24 hours regardless of the entity required to report.

To ensure that it keeps an accurate and up-to-date list of all mental health facilities required to report individuals with mental illness, at least twice a year Justice should update its outreach list of mental health facilities, and as soon as it identifies mental health facilities that have not yet received information about reporting requirements, Justice should send these facilities this information.

To ensure that timely information is available for its efforts to identify armed prohibited persons and confiscate their firearms, Justice should manage staff priorities to meet its internal deadline for initially reviewing potential prohibited persons.

To ensure that it makes correct determinations about whether an individual is an armed prohibited person, Justice should implement quality control procedures, including supervisory review, over APPS unit staff determinations.

To ensure that it processes all reports it receives about persons with mental illness, Justice's mental health unit should develop and implement quality control procedures, including periodic supervisory review of report entry to ensure that all reports are entered correctly into the mental health database. Additionally, it should conduct a supervisory review of all staff decisions to delete records from the database before their deletion.

AGENCY COMMENTS

Justice agreed with all of our recommendations and outlined steps it will take to implement them. In general, the other entities to which we directed recommendations acknowledged that they need to improve their practices and agreed to implement changes to address the issues we found. However, the Administrative Office of the Courts cited resource issues as precluding courts from implementing a change we recommend to state law. In addition, San Francisco Superior Court objected to specific language in our report and did not indicate whether it agreed with our recommendation to the court.


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