Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

Los Angeles County’s top prosecutor said Tuesday that stopping “the revolving door” of mentally ill offenders in and out of county jails will require more law enforcement training and additional urgent care centers and supportive housing.

“What you have now is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey told the Board of Supervisors in describing what she said was unprecedented agreement among stakeholders, including law enforcement, first-responders, defense attorneys and mental health professionals.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell applauded the work of a task force led by Lacey, telling the board that county jails “should be our last resort rather than our first response” when it comes to low-level offenders who are mentally ill.

The task force began working in May 2014 and presented its conclusions in a report titled “A Blueprint for Change.”

Implementing its recommendations — 29 in all — will not come cheap, with interim Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai estimating total costs at about $83 million.

McDonnell said the recommendations represented a “fiscally sound approach.”

Lacey told the board that the “top priority is training of law enforcement” on how to de-escalate situations.

Some community activists objected to the idea that more money should go to law enforcement instead of community-based resources.

The task force recommendations also include using more urgent care centers as a point of treatment for mentally ill individuals picked up by law enforcement; deploying more mental health professionals with law enforcement; and sourcing permanent supportive housing for the homeless mentally ill.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has just eight medical emergency teams, compared with the Los Angeles Police Department’s 60 MET teams.

McDonnell said deputies sometimes shy away from taking mentally ill offenders to hospital emergency rooms because that stop can pull them off of patrol for more than half a day. Deputies can drop someone off at the jail and be in and out in less than an hour.

“In too many cases, we arrest our way out of these encounters,” the sheriff said.

Urgent care centers could offer a third option, Lacey said.

Permanent supportive housing, the highest ticket item on Lacey’s list, is critical, she said, because homeless, mentally ill offenders end up back on the streets and roughly 90 percent end up committing more crimes.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said a new approach is sorely needed.

“What we’ve been doing (across the country) just hasn’t worked,” she said, pointing to a nationwide “seismic shift in how we think about incarceration and what it’s for.”

Lacey said the reason for diversion isn’t to reduce overcrowding but “because it is simply the right thing to do” and serves public safety.

The report concluded that mental health diversion would free up beds so that serious, violent offenders could serve more of their sentences, but not reduce the overall needs for jail beds.

Kuehl and some criminal justice advocates questioned that conclusion.

“You can’t divert people with mental illness without reducing the number of people in county jail,” Peter Eliasberg of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California told the board.

A separate report presented to the board Tuesday by an outside consultant anticipates a growing need for jail beds despite diversion programs and legislative changes aimed at reducing incarceration for low-level crimes.

And change will take time.

“It will probably take a decade to change the culture and to change the system,” Lacey said.

— City News Service 

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