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LA County officials to vote on $100 million in services to keep mentally ill out of jail

The Board of Supervisors will consider a $20 million plan to help the mentally ill avoid jail and move into other treatments.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
The Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday on setting aside $100 million to divert mentally ill inmates out of jail and into treatment.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday on spending $100 million on a swath of proposals designed to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates in county jails.

The supervisors set aside a combined $30 million in in general funds already during the last two budget cycles for that purpose. 

Tuesday's motion, drafted by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, would take additional dollars from prison realignment money the county gets from the state every year, plus funds from SB 678, another state grant aimed at reducing the prison population. Those additional dollars will add approximately another $70 million, Ridley-Thomas said.

"We must create alternatives for people who are not a danger to the public, who suffer from mental illness and who would benefit greatly from community oriented programs to help them improve their lives," Ridley-Thomas wrote in an email.

The proposal comes on the heels of a long-awaited report by L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey on what the county needs to do to start moving its mentally ill low-level offenders out of the jails and into treatment. She outlined a woeful lack of resources in the existing public health system to treat all those who need help, but can't afford it. 

She suggested training all police in the county in how to distinguish between criminal behavior and mental health crisis — and then build up a network of treatment programs, hospital beds, and permanent supportive housing units as alternatives to jail for those needing help. 

Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl's motion would create an Office of Diversion within the Department of Health Services to pick up where Lacey left off and implement her vision. 

“By funding an Office for Diversion Services, we are truly showing where our priorities are," Ridley-Thomas said. The investment could be offset by reductions in jail spending, he said.

The Department of Health Services, led by Dr. Mitch Katz, recently took over all health and mental health services in the county jails as part of an effort to improve the quality of care behind bars.

Mental health treatment in the jails has been so inadequate the U.S. Department of Justice sued the Sheriff's Department over conditions for the mentally ill in L.A.'s jails. That suit ended in a comprehensive settlement agreement last week. In it, the sheriff's department agreed to improve training, suicide prevention, and subject itself to outside monitoring. 

The sheriff's department also wants to replace crumbing Men's Central Jail downtown with a new jail devoted to treating inmates with mental health and substance abuse issues. That plan, part of a $2 billion jail overhaul package, is on hold while supervisors try to determine how big the jail needs to be, and how many of those inmates can be safely diverted elsewhere.