The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to spend nearly $41 million in state funding to expand crisis intervention and other services for the mentally ill, as part of an effort to keep them out of county jails.
District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who is leading a task force focused on the mental health issue, praised the effort.
“Too often, our response is to lock mentally ill people away,” Lacey told the board.
The money will be used in part to expand mobile crisis support teams that work in tandem with police officers and sheriff’s deputies to identify mentally ill offenders.
A consultant hired by Lacey concluded that not enough law enforcement officers have been trained on how to deal with people undergoing a mental health crisis, and recommended more resources.
Health officials also plan to open three new 24-hour urgent care centers and expand residential treatment programs for the mentally ill by about 560 beds.
Civil rights activists — who protested outside the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration prior to speaking before the board — have been pushing the county to fund community-based programs in lieu of increasing the number of jail cells.
Lacey acknowledged that the county will need to do both, noting the state of deterioration of the Men’s Central Jail.
“It’s unfit even if you’re not mentally ill,” she said.
Effective community-based crisis treatment can cut costs associated with inpatient or emergency room care and jail time, officials said.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky highlighted the expense involved.
“The cost of checking somebody in (to the jail) is probably greater than the cost of checking into a Four Seasons hotel,” Yaroslavsky said.
The board and advocates offered their support of Lacey’s work to expand mental health diversion programs.
Peter Eliasberg of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said he believes there is now consensus that jailing the mentally ill was “an abject failure,” and he called the focus on diversion “a move in the right direction.”
The county’s sheriff-elect, Jim McDonnell, appeared to agree.
“Our jails are not the best place for those who are suffering from mental illness and would be better served by community-based treatment options that can address the underlying problems, while still maintaining community safety,” McDonnell said in a statement.
Lacey cautioned that change would take time.
“The steps have to be modest,” she said. “L.A. County is a country unto itself … it’s going to take a lot of time to fix this issue.”
The Department of Justice has said it will seek court oversight of the county’s treatment of mentally ill inmates, citing high levels of suicides and other failures.
— City News Service