Photo by John Schreiber.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky supports the new jail diversion program. Photo by John Schreiber.

Chronically homeless or seriously mentally ill people who commit select misdemeanor or low-level felony offenses could avoid jail time and fines and instead be offered housing and treatment under a pilot program introduced Wednesday in Van Nuys.

The Los Angeles County Third District Diversion and Alternative Sentencing Program will screen qualified defendants facing misdemeanor charges to see if they are eligible. If they qualify for diversion, they will be sent to the San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center, placed in transitional housing and offered support services such as health or mental- health care.

Defendants who complete the 90-day program, comply with all of their requirements and don’t commit any new offenses will have the cases against them dismissed.

Defendants facing low-level felonies will be required to plead guilty or no contest and complete an 18-month diversion program with similar requirements. If they successfully complete the program, some could have their probation terminated early and charges dismissed, while others can seek to have the charges dismissed after they complete 36 months of probation.

“For chronically homeless and seriously mentally ill defendants, diversion and alternative sentencing programs are an intelligent way to deal with misdemeanors and some low-level felonies,” County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. “Instead of taking up jail space, they should be housed and given treatment to address the issues that contributed to their transgressions in the first place.”

County officials said more than 3,500 inmates in the county jail system each day are suffering from some type of mental illness. They are generally unable to make bail and their cases take longer to resolve, meaning they spend more time behind bars, according to the county.

“It is sometimes in the best interests of the public, and of mentally ill offenders, to divert someone from the criminal justice system,” Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge David Wesley said. “Judges play a crucial role in this process, balancing the needs of the community and mentally ill defendants.”

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey and Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer also said they back the program.

“I hope this pilot project serves as a template for expanding the availability of these types of services throughout Los Angeles County,” Lacey said.

— City News Service

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