Breaking the Cycle of Incarceration and Homelessness

Los Angeles County leaders announced the expansion of a groundbreaking program that diverts mentally ill inmates from jail and provides them with intensive case management and supportive housing. They also released a study showing how many more individuals can be helped by this program while improving public safety and saving public funds.

Called ODR Housing, the program operated by the County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry has diverted 1,728 people from jail since 2016. Participants receive permanent supportive housing and long-term intensive case management to ensure their ongoing medical and mental healthcare needs are met, making communities safer and breaking the cycle between jail and homelessness.

Previously, diversion from jail into case management and housing was available only to people whose cases were heard in the Superior Court’s downtown LA Central District. But at the request of the Court, cases will be heard in two courthouses serving nine districts beginning April 2019. By the end of the year, mentally ill inmates from all over the County may be eligible for treatment and services instead of jail. 

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas with ODR Housing program participant Stephen Baker. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors

“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,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who authored the motion to create ODR. “Today we are taking the important step of expanding this program to every courthouse in Los Angeles County. By doubling down on diversion, we have the potential to reach thousands more individuals countywide without compromising public safety.”

“With the guidance and support offered by ODR’s program, I transitioned from incarceration to interim housing in October of 2016,”  ODR Housing program participant Stephen Baker said. “I began getting counseling, receiving medication, and working with a primary doctor to manage my health issues. For the first time, I learned about having a healthy state of mind and felt like I had real support.”

Currently one-third of the men in LA County jail suffer from mental illness. As of February 2019, the jail mental health population was counted at 5,134, out of an overall jail population of 16,621. A new report from the Department of Health Services shows that the ODR Housing program can break the cycle between jail and homelessness for thousands more people than previously thought—56% of that jail mental health population, or nearly 2,900 people. 

“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,” said District Attorney Jackie Lacey. “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.  For that reason, my office is working closely with the Office of Diversion and Reentry to ensure that my prosecutors are making informed decisions that not only keep the public safe but also assist people in getting services they need to be healthy members of our community.” 

“When a public defender has a mentally ill client facing incarceration and resolves the case with the client receiving the care and housing he needs to return to society —that’s real, tangible progress. That’s the holistic advocacy that I as Public Defender hope one day soon becomes business as usual across the county,” said Public Defender Ricardo Garcia. “We need to see the whole person and work in interdisciplinary teams to address both the immediate case and the client’s underlying life circumstances — drug addiction, mental illness, family or housing instability — that contributed to the person’s contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.”

“The Office of Diversion and Reentry has successfully provided much needed treatment to many of our clients, which helps stop the cycle of recidivism and we look forward to ODR being able to provide needed services to many more people through these new hubs,” said Erika Anzoategui, Acting Alternate Public Defender for LA County.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas with ODR Housing program participant Stephen Baker, LA County Health Services Director Christina Ghaly, LA County Probation Chief Sheila McDonald, and LA County Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl, and DIstrict Attorney Jackie Lacey. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors

In addition to increasing public safety and improving individual outcomes, ODR’s supportive housing program shifts public expenditures away from expensive hospital and jail costs into treatment and community care. The program costs an estimated $26,000 per participant per year—about $70/day. While comparative cost studies are still underway, incarceration facility costs can reach many times higher, and the addition of mental health treatment can drive costs up by tens of thousands of dollars annually. 

With 92% of participants remaining in housing after six months, the supportive housing program’s success record represents a culture shift in L.A.’s justice system and shows that community safety and reentry can be achieved through collaboration.

“For a population that struggles with addiction and compliance, a 92% stay rate after six months is profound,” said Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald, “People who are able to stay in the community at the six-month mark attend to stay in the community in the long run.”

“This is good news, not only for those in jail needing mental health treatment and their families, but also good news for our communities struggling with untreated mental health patients cycling in and out of jail, and good news for the County,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. “The evidence shows that we can improve treatment, enhance public safety, and use tax dollars more effectively, so let’s do it.”

“We’ve seen miraculous changes come out of one courtroom in one part of the County,” said LA County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis. “People go from suffering in the jail to thriving in their communities. They go from hopelessness to stability, care, and hope. Thanks to the Superior Court’s request to expand this program, those miracles will start happening in communities across the County.” 

The Court’s requested expansion of ODR Housing to a hub model now operates out of the Downtown courthouse (Criminal Justice Center) serving the Central Criminal District, Pasadena (North Central/Northeast) and Pomona (East); and from the the Airport Courthouse (West District) serving Torrance (Southwest), Compton (South Central), South (Long Beach) and Southeast (Norwalk). By the end of the year, the remaining three districts (Northwest, North Valley and North) will be served through programming based in Van Nuys and Lancaster. 

“The Los Angeles Superior Court (LASC) is proud to work with our justice partners on an expansion of this critical program to help homeless individuals overcome their mental health issues,” said Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile. “This program’s success is due in large part to the availability of housing, which provides a stable, safe home for people as they participate in mental health and other programs, reclaim their lives, and keep our neighborhoods safe. The ODR housing program demonstrates how the LASC, along with our justice partners, enhances public safety while helping these individuals lead more productive lives.”

ODR Housing cases represent a unique partnership across the County’s Justice and Health Departments. Each case is reviewed by the District Attorney, the Public Defender or the Alternate Public Defender, ODR, the Probation Department, and ultimately the Court itself. 

Once approved, participants are released into ODR’s residential programming. Under the supervision of specially trained probation officers, they begin treatment in interim housing and eventually transition into permanent housing, robust support services and reintegration into the community. Seven permanent supportive housing providers and twelve interim housing providers make up the ODR Housing services: Amity Foundation, The People Concern, Special Services for Groups (SSG) Project 180, Volunteers of America, Telecare, Alcott Center, and St. Joseph’s Center.