A program to move eligible mentally ill inmates from county jail into community-based treatment will be expanded to courtrooms countywide, officials announced Monday.
Roughly one-third of the men in county jails—an estimated 5,134 individuals in February—suffer from mental illness. More than half of those men could be safely released into community-based care and transition into supportive housing, according to a report by the county’s Department of Health Services.
District Attorney Jackie Lacey said community safety and justice reform can both be served.
“Prosecutors take an oath to protect our community and public safety is our number one priority. We also want to make sure that jails and prisons are reserved for the most serious and violent offenders,” Lacey said. “In the past, some people have served more time behind bars due to their untreated mental illness and, as a result, they experienced further mental deterioration.”
Lacey said prosecutors are working closely with the Office of Diversion and Reentry to review cases.
Until now, diversion into treatment and housing was only available to defendants arraigned in the Superior Court’s central downtown district, Pasadena and Pomona. But the ODR program will now be expanded to include the Airport Courthouse, serving communities in the South Bay and South Los Angeles, and the option is scheduled to be rolled out to courthouses in Van Nuys and Lancaster, covering the entire county, by year end.
The ODR has diverted 1,728 people from jail since 2016 and more than 90 percent of those provided with housing remained there after six months, according to county sources.
“For a population that struggles with addiction and compliance, a 92 percent stay rate after six months is profound,” Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald said. “People who are able to stay in the community at the six-month mark intend to stay in the community in the long run.”
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the program has a reliable track record.
“Over the last three years, we have proven that diverting people with mental health disorders from jail into treatment and supportive housing makes communities safer. It also breaks the cycle between the criminal justice system and homelessness, and saves public funds,” Ridley-Thomas said. “By doubling down on diversion, we have the potential to reach thousands more individuals countywide without compromising public safety.”
Participants are supervised by specially trained probation officers. They begin treatment in interim housing and eventually transition to a permanent home with supportive services.
Before the news conference to announce the expansion, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva offered a grim assessment of the program’s ability to change L.A. County jails’ status as one of the largest mental health hospitals in the nation. In order to move all mentally ill inmates deemed safe for release into community-based treatment, the ODR would have to divert 50 individuals every day, according to Villanueva’s math.
Villanueva, who has battled with county officials over reinstating deputies with a record of misconduct and rolling back policies instituted by his predecessor, said he was “inspired” by the county’s efforts but concluded, “All of the county’s efforts in the area of mental health diversion have not impacted the jail’s average daily inmate population.”
The sheriff’s math implies that each of the offenders booked daily is never re-arrested, when in fact previous county studies have shown that many mentally ill individuals are chronic offenders cycling in and out of jails and hospitals on a repeat basis.
But Villanueva and other county officials are in agreement about the need for more community beds to serve the mentally ill. The Board of Supervisors have urged state officials to apply for a Medicaid waiver that would expand coverage for inpatient mental health treatment at residential facilities.
And while a contract has been awarded for a $2.2 billion downtown mental health jail to replace Men’s Central Jail, the board also directed staffers to look at options to “right-size” the scope of the project. A report back is expected in July and it is not yet clear where the board will land in response to criminal justice advocates who have called for smaller, decentralized treatment centers spread across the county instead of 3,885-bed facility nearly three times the size of the state’s largest mental health hospital.
There is also an open question of whether that facility would be run by the sheriff or mental health professionals.
Without mentioning the jail plan, Villanueva asserted the continuing need for treatment in custody.
“The stark reality is we also need a therapeutic environment for those mentally ill inmates who must remain in custody. Unfortunately, due to violent offenders and the need to balance diversion with public safety, there will always be a need for mental health beds within our jails,” the sheriff said.
A study of the jail population by the RAND Corporation is also underway.
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