Transforming the Criminal Justice System with Diversion

mental healthIn a move that could transform Los Angeles County’s criminal justice system, the Board of Supervisors approved Tuesday an innovative plan for sending low-level offenders with mental illness and substance abuse problems into treatment, rather than jail, while preserving public safety.

Acting on a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, the Board voted to create an Office of Diversion and Re-Entry within the Department of Health Services. Its mission over the first five years is to steer at least 1,000 individuals onto a path toward mental stability, sobriety and self-sufficiency.

Currently, this population tends to cycle in and out of emergency rooms and jails, at tremendous cost to taxpayers. The newly-created Office of Diversion and Re-Entry will coordinate with other agencies within the criminal justice system and community-based organizations to provide wraparound services, from housing to mental health and substance abuse treatments, and even job training.

“Diversion is the right thing to do, and it puts taxpayer dollars to much better use than incarceration does,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Our current system is effectively broken and, in the final analysis, contributes to recidivism.”

District Attorney Jackie Lacey added, “We must commit to doing a better job of helping those with mental illness reclaim their lives.”

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ motion, called for developing “a pipeline of no less than 1,000 permanent supportive housing units over the next five years” and suggested evaluating available properties in or near the county’s medical campuses for that purpose.

The Board incorporated amendments by Supervisor Hilda Solis directing the Office to also support inmates at risk of becoming homeless after they leave jail, and by Supervisor Michael Antonovich requiring that expanding housing and treatment services include robust community outreach.

The Board called on the Office to expand existing diversion and anti-recidivism programs that have demonstrated success or shown promise, paying particular attention to those administered in community settings.

The Office would have at least $120 million in funding in its first year.

Board Approves the Creation of an Office of Diversion and Re-Entry

Hoping to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates that are low level offenders in Los Angeles County jails, the Board of Supervisors has approved the creation of an Office of Diversion and Re-Entry to be placed in the Department of Health Services.

The motion, authored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, allocates funding for a permanent steering committee made up of five people from key county departments to advise the office. Supervisor Hilda Solis asked that the office also include re-entry services for those who have been released from jail.

The office will be co-chaired on an interim basis by representatives from the District Attorney’s office and the Department of Health Services until a permanent director is hired. The steering committee’s first tasks is to create clear assessment tools for all county departments, the courts and key private provider partners can use to determine who can be served by these services.

“This is not an either or proposition,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “People with substance abuse issues and mental health illness need these services. At the same time, we must still maintain public safety. Diversion is simply the right thing to do.”

Added Supervisor Kuehl: “This is truly an historic day. This diversion motion represents a seismic shift in the way the county treats the mentally ill who too often find themselves, through no fault of their own, caught up in the gears of our justice system. This is a practical motion, and a necessary one that we are confident will work.”

The motion will allocate roughly $120 million, including at least $10 million annually in ongoing funding to the office. A substantial portion of these funds will come from the reallocation of money from two public safety related state bills, SB678 and AB109.

It is estimated that at least 40 percent of the funds will be allocated towards housing and 50 percent for the cost of expanding existing successful or promising diversion and anti-recidivism programs, especially those that are community based.

The proposal comes after the release of a report by L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey that addressed the challenges of releasing mentally ill low-level offenders from jail and placing them in treatment. The District Attorney highlighted the lack of resources to treat all those who need help, but can’t afford it.

“I applaud everyone who has brought us to this point, especially District Attorney Jackie Lacey for her leadership,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “I applaud my colleagues on this board for their unrelenting commitment to taking on a huge challenge and finding a better approach.”

Diverting the Mentally Ill from Jail into Treatment

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Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas applauded District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s recommendations to divert persons with mental illness from the county jail system, presented Tuesday in a report to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas then went a step further, calling for the establishment of an Office of Diversion Services, which would create a comprehensive approach to jail diversion in Los Angeles County.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas plans to file a motion creating a well-funded Office of Diversion Services that includes mental health, housing and legal experts, as well as advisory representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department, Public Defender, Alternate Public Defender and the Departments of Mental Health and Health Services.

“We must design and implement a successful plan to deter individuals with mental health and substance abuse problems from going to jail and to keep them from re-offending,” he said. “Through the Office of Diversion Services, the county would have a well-coordinated approach to methodically and holistically address this complex problem. We cannot approach this in a piecemeal manner, but rather by understanding all the elements and addressing public safety as a public health issue.”

District Attorney Lacey’s report, which came in response to a motion authored by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas in May 2014, addressed “all circumstances ranging from pre-arrest to post-conviction, in which mentally ill persons can be prevented from entering the jail at all, can be redirected from the jail into treatment, or can receive linkage to services (during and after incarceration) to help prevent them from returning to custody.”

Research indicates that taxpayer dollars are best spent on a comprehensive diversion program that promotes community care. This approach can be more effective than jails in treating mental illness, enhancing public safety, reducing repeat offenses and producing better outcomes. Diversion alternatives could also include development of permanent supportive housing, expansion of successful mental outpatient service programs and more training for law enforcement personnel.

“We need the Office of Diversion Services to serve as a pipeline, bringing people from one resource to the next in an effective way so they do not commit more crimes once they are released,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “In fact, we need to design a game plan so that they don’t enter the system in the first place.”

Funding Programs to Help At-Risk Youth

camp.Every year, the state of California gives Los Angeles County an average of $28.1 million under the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA) to pay for mental health screenings and treatment, substance abuse intervention, after-school enrichment, school- or housing-based supervision, a Special Needs Court, and other programs to help reduce crime and delinquency among at-risk youth.

Most of that allocation has been expended, but $21.7 million in savings has accumulated since the fiscal year 2010-2011.

In July, the board approved a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl directing the county Chief Executive Office and Probation Department to prepare for the immediate allocation of $1 million from the JJCPA fund to pay for critical programs and services delivered by community-based organizations in each supervisorial district.

“We should make the most of resources set aside to help at-risk youth, juvenile offenders and their families, so the county can continue to lower the arrest and incarceration rates of children,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.

Despite the decrease of juvenile arrests in recent years, there are still more than 650 youth detained in the county’s juvenile halls.

Board Moves to Require Regular Audits for IT Safety

Calling for regular audits and strong safety measures to be in place so that information is secure, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a motion calling for more intense scrutiny of the county’s IT infrastructure.

The motion comes on the heels of a series of troubling audits that found security lapses in several Los Angeles County departments that allowed terminated employees to gain access to confidential records, including medical and criminal files (Probation Audit, Public Health Audit).  The audits conducted by L.A. County’s Auditor-Controller specifically revealed lapses in security at Los Angeles County’s probation and public health departments.  Although the Department of Probation has now deleted the accounts, the audit found that among former employees, 695 logins remained active for seven years – and 33 were used to access probation systems. At the Department of Public Health, 13 employee accounts were active well after termination of employment, and in one case, an old login was used to order tests and access the results for patients in the public health system – a possible violation of federal privacy laws.

“This information needs to be protected at all times,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who sponsored the motion that was approved. “Efficient, reliable, useful, modern, quality and secure IT systems must be a central component and core mission of our governance and any governance restructuring that we do.”

In recent years, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas has initiated several improvements to the county’s IT system including: