By Jim Miller
Even as California lawmakers target extra money at confiscating weapons from people who shouldn't have them, a new state audit finds that the state Department of Justice and the courts have failed to identify thousands of mentally ill people covered by the prohibition.
Tuesday's audit by the Bureau of State Audits found that 34 of 58 Superior Courts did not file at least 2,300 prohibited person reports to the Justice Department's mental health unit from 2010 through 2012. The number of unfiled reports was likely even higher because some counties could not tell how many reports they had failed to file, according to the audit. Other courts' filings lacked required information.
Earlier this year, lawmakers approved legislation that appropriated $24 million to the department to tackle a backlog of cases of prohibited persons having guns, a number that stood at 20,800 people in July. But Tuesday's audit warned that the effort is undermined by authorities' failure to collect and process prohibited persons' reports from the courts and mental health facilities.
"It is critical that justice improve its outreach and internal processes so its agents can better protect the public from armed prohibited persons," the audit said, calling on the department to step up its outreach and for the Legislature to require all mental health-related prohibited person reports to be filed within 24 hours.
The reports are supposed to go into the Armed Prohibited Persons System, which lists people who, for different reasons, cannot purchase or posses a firearm. The criteria include a court's determination that a mentally ill person poses a danger to others.
According to the audit, court officials in most of the 34 counties said they did not know about the filing requirement and the Justice Department failed to remind them or mental-health facilities. In addition, the audit found the department has struggled to process the reports it does receive.
Stephen J. Lindley, chief of the Justice Department's Bureau of Firearms, said it agreed with the audit's recommendations and plans to communicate more with the courts and other entities required to file the reports.
But the Administrative Office of the Courts said it disagreed with the audit's recommendation for a law requiring the courts to file prohibited-person reports within 24 hours. Current law requires the reports "immediately," with a law taking effect Jan. 1 that will extend the time to two court workdays.
"Given the unprecedented budget cuts to the judicial branch, limited business hours and staff, and other resource issues, the shorter deadline is not recommended," said Steven Jahr, the administrative director of the courts. Auditors stood by their recommendation, calling the suggested change "important to public safety."
The audit followed a request by GOP Assemblymen Katcho Achadjian and Allan Mansoor.
In a statement, Achadjian said Tuesday's report "confirmed our worst fears _ that information about individuals who should be on the list of armed prohibited persons is not being fully reported and is not being reported immediately as required by law."
The audit follows several bills this year meant to tighten the rules on gun ownership by the mentally ill. Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1131 that increases from six months to five years the amount of time a person is prohibited from having a gun after threatening violence to a licensed psychotherapist.
But Brown vetoed a measure, Senate Bill 755, that would have added substance-abuse convictions and court orders to undergo outpatient mental-health treatment to the criteria that make a person ineligible to have a gun for 10 years.
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