Mark Ridley-Thomas Asks for $20 Million for Mental Health Diversion & Jackie Lacey Lays Out the IssueJuly 16th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon
On Tuesday, Supervisor Mark-Ridley Thomas surprised advocates at this week’s board of supervisors meeting with a welcome and very timely motion to identify and set aside at least $20 million in county funds for a mental health diversion program.
In the motion, Ridley-Thomas pointed out that diversion “was a missing component of the adopted nearly $2 billion dollar jail master plan.” And yet, he noted, only a proposed $3 million was set aside for it.
“Considering that the Board-approved jail construction plan is estimated to cost $2B, the proposed investment in diversion is inadequate by comparison.”
(Um. Ya think?)
Ridley-Thomas also spelled out the fact that the claim that diversion will save money and lower LA’s jail population is hardly conjecture, that there is plenty of precedent to guide us, like, for example, “….New York City’s Nathaniel Project with a reported 70% reduction in arrests over a two-year period; Chicago’s Thresholds program with an 89% reduction in arrests, 86% reduction in jail time, and a 76% reduction in hospitalization for program participant; and Seattle’s FACT program with a 45% reduction in jail and prison bookings. The Miami-Dade County program, with access to community-based services and supportive housing resources, has reduced recidivism from 75% to 20% for program participants….”
MRT’s motion seemed well-timed for passage, coming as it did a day after Long Beach police chief and candidate for sheriff, Jim McDonnell, called on LA County to “fund and promote an effective network of treatment programs for the mentally ill which will provide them with the support, compassion and services they need to avoid our justice system.”
It also followed LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s scheduled report to the board on Tuesday.
Lacey—the LA official who has taken the lead on the push for mental health diversion (and thereby conveyed to the concept an important validity due to her position in law enforcement)—gave a fact-laden presentation that was also often genuinely impassioned.
For example, there was this:
“There’s also a moral question at hand in this process. Are we punishing people for simply being sick? Public safety should have a priority, but justice should always come first. If you are in a mental state that you hurt others, then the justice system has to do what it can to protect the public. but there are many who do not fall into that category. When we over incarcerate those…We merely act on fear and ignorance…”
And then later:
“My position is that of being in the criminal justice system for nearly 30 years as a prosecutor. It’s like groundhog day. We continue to have the same reaction in the prosecutor’s office, which is to put people into jail. Punish, punish, punish. And if our recidivism rate in this state is 70 percent….we are failing. We are failing! All we are doing is warehousing people and putting them back out!”
And the number of mentally ill warehoused is growing, she said. “The percentage of inmates who are mentally ill has increased by nearly 89 percent since 2011.” And “…we see the same people over and over again after they have been treated in the jail and released.”
Like Ridley-Thomas, Lacey pointed to the existing programs elsewhere that make clear that LA need not be stuck in such a cycle of knee-jerk failure. “We know when we look at other jurisdictions such as Miami Dade and Memphis, we are not doing what we could and should be doing to divert those who are mentally ill out of the system.
In the end, the board thanked Lacey profusely and elected to put off voting on Ridley-Thomas’s motion until next week. But the reception by at least some supervisors, notably Zev Yaroslavsky, was demonstrably positive.
“I think it’s critical that we do this,” Yaroslavsky said. “It kind of came to a head a few weeks ago when the majority of the board vote to undertake the study of a $2 billion jail. These kinds of programs would not necessarily mitigate the need for a replacement jail, but it might mitigate the need for the size of jail we have….”
Let us hope that next week the board as a whole follows through with real commitment through their vote.