Long Beach expands program offering services instead of jail to homeless, mentally ill defendants

As the pandemic wanes and the city adds more shelter space, Long Beach is expanding a program the City Prosecutor’s office has used to divert some homeless defendants away from jail and into long-term services.

Starting this week, anyone facing of a misdemeanor in Long Beach will now be considered for the program if there’s evidence the defendant has a mental health condition or substance-abuse disorder, City Prosecutor Doug Haubert announced Tuesday.

Before, the program—known as Priority Access Diversion (PAD)—was only open to people who were already in custody and were facing a minimum of one year in county jail.

Haubert’s office created PAD in 2018 to offer repeat offenders with drug and mental health problems the option of going into live-in treatment programs instead of jail. Most people who’ve taken advantage of the PAD program so far have done so after having charges filed or after being convicted, but Haubert said his office is working to offer the option to more people soon after they’re arrested or cited—before their cases even makes it to a courtroom.

The prosecutor’s office partnered with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and the LA Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse to evaluate which cases would benefit from treatment instead of jail time. Almost all of the individuals selected for the program where homeless.

Haubert said the services offered through PAD could help homeless people break the cycle of repeatedly going to jail for low-level crimes, such as loitering and trespassing.

“The criminal justice system is not the way to fix homelessness, but it has to be part of the solution,” Haubert said.

His decision to expand the program arrives as COVID-19 restrictions further loosen, and as the city and county open new homeless housing options—creating more room for potential PAD recipients. Haubert said his office has also hired “an in-house social worker with a background in homeless services” to help with the new volume.

Even before the pandemic, Long Beach and other cities in the region were struggling to address homelessness. When the pandemic hit, many services were put on hold and the focus went toward containing the virus.

Jails throughout the state also released some inmates to reduce crowding and slow the spread of COVID-19. The city expected more than 150 of those inmates to end up in Long Beach with no permanent housing.

According to the most recently available data, Long Beach has seen an overall increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people citywide. The number of drug overdose deaths among the homeless also grew during the pandemic.

According to the City Prosecutor’s office, the rehabilitation services offered through PAD were a bright spot. Officials said a review of the first 40 PAD cases in 2018 revealed that 83% of them were still in residential services 60 days later.

With the expansion of the program, PAD proponents hope they can see more success. The City Prosecutor’s office will still rely on mental health experts and homeless specialists to determine who can receive rehab services through PAD instead of going to jail.

“We hope PAD is a way to make services available for those who need the services and are willing to accept the services,” Haubert said. “No one will be forced into the PAD program. They have to want the program.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated to clarify that the PAD program does not require a recipient to be convicted before being diverted to treatment.

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Sebastian Echeverry is the North Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of his grant-funded position with the Long Beach Post. If you want to support Sebastian's work, you can donate to his Report for America position at lbpost.com/support.