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Lacey wants to change the way police, prosecutors deal with mentally ill in Los Angeles

Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey speaks during an election party for newly elected Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell on Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2014 at the JW Marriott at LA Live.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey speaks during an election party for newly elected Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell on Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2014 at the JW Marriott at LA Live.

The Los Angeles County criminal justice system – from police and prosecutors to judges and social workers – is failing to humanely and effectively deal with mentally ill people who commit crimes, according to a report District Attorney Jackie Lacey plans to deliver Wednesday.

The report, prepared by consultants with Policy Research Associates, Inc., calls for better training, coordination and resources to help the thousands of men and women who pass through the justice system each year.

L.A. County jails hold more than 18,000 people on any given night. An estimated 3,500 are mentally ill. Forty-three percent of them are African American, according to one study. (See the full report below).

The report comes as the U.S. Department of Justice seeks to impose reforms on the way the county treats mentally ill inmates. Lacey formally delivers her report to the Board of Supervisors Wednesday.

Too few police officers are adequately trained to de-escalate encounters with mentally ill people on the streets, the report says. In addition, there are insufficient resources for the county’s Psychiatric Mobile Response Teams.

Bottom line: It’s simply easier to take someone to jail than get them help.

“It is often more time efficient for law enforcement to book an individual into jail on a minor charge…rather than spend many hours waiting in a psychiatric emergency department for an individual to be seen,” the report says.

And while there are an estimated 1,800 hospital beds for psychiatric patients in L.A. County, “only a small percentage of those beds can actually be accessed by individuals who are uninsured.” Consultants collected much of their information during an all-day conference with law enforcement officials and social workers earlier this year.

The report describes a system in need of significant changes: In the jails, mentally ill people are receiving inadequate care. At the courthouse, prosecutors, judges and social workers often “lack alignment” when deciding whether its safe to divert someone from criminal prosecution into treatment.

Once someone is released from jail, there’s often no place to go for help. The Department of Mental Health “needs more resources to keep pace with the high volume of referrals and short time frames with which to link individuals to needed services.”

The report identifies five points at which the criminal justice system can divert a mentally ill person into treatment – starting with the moment of police contact. It recommends the Board of Supervisors fund more training for police officers and expand diversion programs. It also recommends creation of a resource center for “criminal justice/mental health technical assistance,” so the justice system can collect and share data on mentally ill offenders.

The report does not include budget recommendations, but mental health advocates have said treating mentally ill people will be cheaper in the long run than locking them up. The report acknowledges this.

“Alternatives to incarceration have gained momentum as a humane and cost effective strategy to reduce criminal justice costs, and improve access to needed services and support  - without compromising public safety,” the report states.

“This is an excellent start,” said Peter Eliasberg, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. Other activists agreed.

“We think the report exposes tremendous suffering for mentally ill people,” said Marc-Anthony Johnson of Dignity and Power Now. The report also is further evidence the county should abandon plans to spend $2 billion to replace the aging Men’s Central Jail, he added.

“We think the Board of Supervisors should stop the $2 billion jail plan and move forward with a mental health diversion program that is comprehensive."

Read the full report: 

LA County DA Jackie Lacey's report to the Board of Supervisors