Treatment vs. Incarceration: $20 Million Proposed for Mental Health Programs

Los Angeles County incarcerates the largest population of mentally ill people of any county in the nation. District Attorney Jackie Lacey, jail reform advocates, fiscal watchdogs, and the supervisors all have voiced concerns about the County’s inhumane and expensive system, which repeatedly cycles mentally ill people in and out of custody.

The supervisors unanimously have acknowledged this circumstance, and in recent months the board has committed to exploring methods of redirecting mentally ill offenders to treatment instead of jail. At present, however, the county has set aside about $3 million.

That’s not enough to make a meaningful effort at diversion. That’s why Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is asking the Board to start to demonstrate its financial commitment by setting aside an amount that is the equivalent of 1% of the $2 billion already set aside for jail construction and renovations.

The results from successful diversion programs across the country are encouraging. Intensive treatment lowers recidivism, resulting both in fewer new victims of crime and lower incarceration costs. In New York City, the Nathaniel Project saw a reported 70% reduction in arrests over a two-year period and Chicago’s Thresholds program resulted in an 89% reduction in arrests, an 86% reduction in jail time, and a 76% reduction in hospitalization for program participants.

“It is time to stop talking about treating mentally ill people with dignity; it’s time to stop talking about taking a fiscally responsible approach to managing our jail population, it’s time to act,” the supervisor said.

The Supervisor’s proposal, which will return to the Board for a vote in coming days, parallels findings outlined to the Board in a presentation by the district attorney. Lacey, who hosted a summit of 60 law enforcement leaders, mental health workers and community advocates last spring, identified six preliminary goals for the county. They are:

1. Training for all criminal justice professionals.

2. Expanding the capacity for behavioral health treatment for mentally ill offenders.

3. Implementing a data study that examines the types of services needed, the capacity needed for those services and the population(s) most in need of these services.

4. Improving communication/coordination among all system partners to remove silos and implement a shared database.

5. Developing policies and procedures to guide service capacity utilization.

6. Creating crisis alternatives centers/crisis stabilization centers that can be utilized by law enforcement, consumers and families of consumers.

7. Expanding the availability of housing for mentally ill offenders.

Embracing and investing in diversion, however, may not be just a matter of choice. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice warned the county that its quality of care for mentally ill offenders and the high number of inmate suicides in its jails did not meet constitutional standards.

“There’s a moral question at hand in this process,” Lacey said. Are we punishing people for simply being sick. Public safety should have a priority, but justice should always come first.”

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