Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

Advocates Wednesday hailed a ruling by a federal judge who ordered the U.S. Department of Justice and Los Angeles County to work out a plan ensuring that all mentally ill jail inmates be given pre-discharge planning, including a referral to a social worker or prescription for medications, before they are set free.

U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson granted a motion brought by attorneys for mentally ill and transient former county jail prisoners asking to intervene in a jails-related case which federal prosecutors settled with the county in August.

“The mental health issues around which this matter revolves are public safety issues as well as legal ones, and concern the well-being of not only the prisoners and public servants directly involved, but of the larger community as well,” Pregerson wrote in his ruling issued Tuesday.

“Mental health issues have unfortunately, and self-evidently, risen to crisis levels, and the sheriff has been forced to assume a prominent role in the absence of sufficient mental health resources.”

He added: “The court encourages all parties to continue to work together to formulate and implement policies that are not only constitutionally and legally adequate, but efficacious and empathetic, as well.”

The six men and two women named in the motion represent “this community’s most urgent problem,” Pregerson said previously.

The former inmates argued that requirements failed to adequately address the needs of mentally disabled prisoners under the American with Disabilities Act when inmates are released onto the streets.

“This case is about homelessness prevention — especially critical at a time when the homelessness crisis is on the rise and El Nino is approaching,” said Mark Rosenbaum, directing attorney for Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, which represents the eight ex-inmates. “The county’s jail discharge planning policy is a homelessness manufacturing machine.”

He added in a statement released Wednesday that by “failing to provide needed assistance to the mentally disabled when they are released from jail, the county sends mentally disabled homeless people back to the streets of Skid Row and exacerbates the expensive Skid Row to jail cycle — the cycle of arrest, release, and re-arrest of mentally disabled individuals.”

Los Angeles County jails have frequently been referred to as the largest de facto mental health facility in the country. On any given day, the region’s jails house and treat an average of 3,500 to 4,000 mentally ill inmates — more than the number of patients managed in the entire California State Hospital system, according to Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

Alisa Hartz, a Public Counsel attorney, said the transition point from custody back to society “is a very vulnerable moment, and that moment is an opportunity to connect mentally disabled people with the services that will keep them out of jail and off the streets.”

“As a society, we must confront the hard truths about how the jails’ practice of discharging mentally disabled people with no resources increases homelessness on Skid Row and keeps the jails full of people who mainly need mental health treatment,” she said.

— City News 

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