LA County rethinks approach to mentally ill inmates

Los Angeles County is considering an overhaul in its mental health services for mentally ill inmates amid growing concern that the mentally ill population in the largest U.S. jail system is out of control.

Bloomberg reports, “Conditions for mentally ill inmates in the county have been a focus of federal probes since 1997, and the number with psychiatric disorders was an issue in a recent debate over a new jail. Keeping a mentally ill person behind bars can cost more than $50,000 annually, while treatment could run two-thirds less. Criminal justice systems from Seattle to Miami with aggressive jail-diversion efforts have cut inmate headcounts -- and lowered recidivism rates.

“L.A. County has taken tentative steps to join them. The board of supervisors in July endorsed the concept of broadbased diversion, and last week pledged $756,000 for a pilot program.

Under L.A. County’s new Third District Diversion and Alternative Sentencing Program, qualifying low-level offenders will receive treatment at the San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center and will be placed in transitional housing.

“In L.A., where the annual jail budget is $850 million, the lock-’em-up approach feeds cycles of crime and homelessness by shuttling people with mental disorders between cells and the streets, said Peter Eliasberg, regional legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Others have done a much better job of saying, ‘We’re not going to get anywhere by incarcerating low-level mentally ill offenders -- in fact, it might be counterproductive.’ People don’t get well on the streets. They don’t get well in jail.”

Officials said more than 3,500 county jail inmates are diagnosed with mental illness, and many of those defendants spend more time in custody because they’re unable to make bail or attend court proceedings, the LA Register reported.


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