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LA supervisors postpone vote on $20M proposal to divert mentally ill from jail (updated)

A bank of public phones outside Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, 10 September 2006. Sheriff's officials acknowledge that they have been overwhelmed by a week's worth of violence in Los Angeles County jails which has left one inmate dead at Pitchess North County Correctional Facility, and at least 28 hospitalized and nearly 90 injured at Pitchess' and other Los Angeles County jail facilities. Violence has continued at Pitchess in Castaic as well as at the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.
Men's Central Jail in Downtown L.A. could be replaced with a facility designed primarily for inmates with mental health issues--part of a $2 billion jail overhaul project preliminarily approved by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

Update 2:08 p.m.: The Board of Supervisors Tuesday postponed a decision on funding a revamp of how the county's criminal justice system handles offenders with mental illness.

In June, the supervisors heard a presentation from District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who is leading a countywide team examining how to divert mentally ill offenders from the courts and jails. She's expected to report to the board with a plan for change in September.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' motion would have set aside $20 million for mental health diversion — a "downpayment," the supervisor said, on Lacey's plan.

However, his colleagues expressed hesitation at committing funding to programs that don't yet exist. 

"I don't think this is ready for primetime," said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who noted that the supervisors may want to spend more than $20 million for such purposes once Lacey's plan is complete.

Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsy and Don Knabe also expressed support for funding diversion through the supplemental budget process in the fall — but not yet.

The board did agree to request a report from various county agencies on where diversion funds might come from and what sorts of programs are needed.

Next week, the board is expected to vote on funding contracts for architectural plans and an environmental impact report for jail construction in L.A. County. The $14.5 million combined contracts would be a next step in building, among other projects in the county's comprehensive jail plan, a downtown jail to house inmates with mental illness. 

6 a.m.: The L.A. County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote Tuesday on devoting $20 million to programs that would divert offenders with mental illness from jail and into alternative treatment.

The motion, put forward by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, comes at a time of crisis in L.A.'s County jails, which are crowded with inmates with mental illness. It also comes at a time when the board has preliminarily approved a $2 billion jail overhaul plan that includes building a jail for mentally ill inmates.

"Inmates with mental illness will not get better in this environment," Ridley-Thomas said Monday. "The question is what are we prepared to commit to changing this."

Ridley-Thomas said the county is under the gun, both morally and legally, to get diversion going. 

In June, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to L.A. County, accusing the jails of housing mentally ill inmates in unconstitutional conditions. The letter pointed to a recent spate of suicides in the jails, a lack of treatment space and overcrowded cells.

Though the DOJ noted it can't order the county to seek alternatives to jail for some of these offenders with mental illness, it did suggest that "many of the prisoners may well be safely and more effectively served in community-based settings at a lower cost to the County."

Calls for change are also coming from leaders elsewhere in county government — particularly District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who recently convened a panel of mental health professionals and county criminal justice agencies to examine overhauling the police's, courts' and jails' treatment of offenders with mental illness.

When Lacey visited the board last month, supervisors voiced support for her efforts. 

The $20 million proposed allocation towards her not-yet-written plan, however, has some doubters. 

The County CEO's office expressed hesitation over the $20 million proposal in a report made public last week. Mainly, the office questioned the idea of allocating money to programs and a plan that don't yet exist, instead of waiting until the county has a more comprehensive plan for diversion.

The CEO recommended waiting until Lacey makes recommendations to the board in the fall — which is also when the board traditionally considers the county's supplemental budget.

"Because there are several priorities for funding, it may be prudent to consider funding for this program through the budget process," the report said. 

Supervisor Don Knabe made a similar suggestion on his blog Monday.

"I’m not clear where the proposed $20 million funding figure came from or how it fits alongside our other priorities," Knabe wrote. 

Ridley-Thomas, however, said the board has waited long enough. "We need to match our rhetoric with evidence of commitment," he said. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named a co-author on the motion. KPCC regrets the error.