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LA District Attorney releases roadmap for diverting mentally ill from jail

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey attended the unveiling ceremony of the renovated Hall of Justice building in downtown.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC
L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey has made diverting mentally ill from jails a key priority.

After a year and a half of research, a task force led by L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey is releasing a roadmap for reducing L.A.'s ever-growing number of mentally ill jail inmates, and diverting those who need it into treatment.

In a report being presented Wednesday afternoon to county supervisors' staff members, Lacey recommends mental health training for all law enforcement officers in the county, as well as steps for building up a network of treatment options for lower level offenders who don't necessarily belong in jail. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors, which will be asked to fund some of the recommendations, is scheduled to discuss the report at their regular meeting August 4. 

"Most people know someone who is battling a serious mental illness," she said. "And that person, if they lack resources, can easily end up in the L.A. County jail. A lot of this behavior that we're jailing people for is not true criminal behavior. It's a result of delusions or the result of an escalation of a confrontation with someone in a uniform, like a police officer." 

The report comes amidst a swirling debate over the future of L.A.'s county jail system, and a changing political climate surrounding crime and punishment nationally.

"It seems like the public is very concerned about mass incarceration of people," Lacey said, citing the recent passage of Proposition 47, which downgraded punishment for drug crimes in California. "I believe people are ready to embrace taking an intelligent and adult look at some of the factors that could lead someone into the criminal justice system and saying maybe we can do something different, maybe we can stop the revolving door if we're thoughtful about how we treat this person."

UC-Berkeley Law Professor Franklin Zimring said Lacey's stance is unusual for a district attorney.

"This is not an issue you run for Attorney General on. The people who are going to give you brownie points are not the elites," said Zimring.

"Police are the only branch of government short of the fire department who you can call in an urban area in a wide variety of scenarios," he said. If there's no plan b for where to say, take someone who's in a mental health crisis, "plan A is send them to jail," he said.

Which has resulted in jails from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles to fill to the brim with mentally ill inmates.

In L.A., about 20 percent of the jail population has a severe mental illness and the plan for the last few years has been to build a specific jail to accommodate them. Last month, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors halted that $2 billion plan while they study alternatives.

Lacey says her plan is not necessarily a jail reduction plan, so much as a way of making sure that those who are in jail actually belong there.

"You're still going to need the jail available for some people who are very dangerous, who commit some serious crimes," she said. If some of the lower level offenders can be diverted into treatment, she said, that makes more room for more serious criminals to serve longer sentences.

The looming question has been how many people fall into that "non-serious" category. The board hired a contractor to study the question and is scheduled to receive their report August 4. The other question is if these folks are diverted from jail, where they should go instead.

"That's what's lacking," said Mark Gale, criminal justice chair of the L.A. chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "If I'm a peace officer and I have somebody who's committed a violation, what do I do with this individual? They clearly need help. Do I book them into the jail or do I bring them somewhere  where they can get help from clinicians and treatment providers? And right now, those assets really don't exist."

So far, the Board of Supervisors has set aside $40 million to help implement Lacey's anticipated recommendations. That, combined with dollars allocated to L.A. under Senate Bill 82, which funds mental health emergency rooms, could jumpstart the process. But Lacey said additional investments will need to be made in options for inpatient treatment, from clinics to permanent housing with on-site services.

Lacey's commitment to the issue is key to getting those resources and building the infrastructure to change the way that jails have functioned, Gale said, but it won't happen overnight.

"If elected officials maintain the level of funding that's necessary and sustain these reforms fiscally, we'll see dramatic results," he said. "You'll look back in ten years and go 'wow, what a difference.' But it takes that long."

The first piece of that plan is already in motion. Law enforcement agencies across the county have agreed to train their officers in dealing with people who are in mental health crisis compassionately and without using force. That idea was lifted from Memphis, Tennessee's police department, which developed the training in 1988. 

"Across the country where they've provided training, they've reduced officer-involved shootings and reduced use of force by police officers," said Chief David Fender of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Fender travelled the country with staff from the D.A.'s office as they researched diverting mentally ill from jail, including to Memphis, where he observed their training program.

"I learned how it really changed the lives of law enforcement officers and how they look and see and approach those that are mentally ill," he said. 

Much of the 36-hour curriculum involves role playing and speaking with family members of people with severe mental illness about their relatives' experiences. 

The LA Sheriff's Dept. plans to start training its deputies in a somewhat modified training —one that focuses on interacting with mentally ill inmates in a jail setting — in the next month. The department plans to train 2,000 deputies in the next year and a half. 

"If we can train officers in how to interact with the mentally ill, that'll keep welfare checks from becoming an assault on an officer or resisting arrest, and cut down on the number of people going to jail," Lacey said.

That said, training isn't a silver bullet.

"You've got to reach the hearts and the minds of the officers," she said. "How do I reach the hearts of people who may not have any sort of sympathy for people who are mentally ill. And that's a million dollar question."

See a draft copy copy of the report here:

Draft report