MORE TREATMENT, LESS INCARCERATION FOR LA COUNTY’S MENTALLY ILL
EDITOR’S NOTE: As alarming news of brutal treatment of the mentally ill continue to surface in both in LA County’s jails and in California’s prisons, it is time to stop making jails and prisons “the community’s de facto treatment facility for people with mental illness”—as So Cal ACLU legal director, Peter Eliasberg puts it. We need a concerted push for diversion to treatment programs rather than continuing to pretend that overreliance on incarceration is the right solution for this complex public health dilemma. The matter is, of course, made even more urgent by the need to ease overcrowding in the jails and prisons.
In a column that appeared this weekend, LA Times’ Steve Lopez focuses on the issue:
Here are some clips:
If you were to spend much time at the Airport Courthouse, a branch of the Los Angeles County Superior Court located just south of LAX, you would begin to notice lots of yellow and blue. As in yellow shirts and blue pants, the outfits worn by Los Angeles County jail inmates who have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
They stride into court in handcuffs for arraignments or other legal matters, then, in many cases, shuffle back into holding cells and await transportation back downtown to overcrowded jails. Ellie Schneir, a deputy public defender for 28 years, said new court personnel are often surprised by the armies of disturbed defendants who come marching through on a daily basis.
…there’s a shameful shortage of sensible, humane, cost-effective services that would divert people into recovery rather than into jail.
“My biggest gripe with the system is why are we spending $50,000 a year to jail somebody when we could be spending $5,000 or whatever it is to put them in a treatment program,” said Lynn Meltzer Brewer, a deputy public defender.
Part of the problem, Schneir said, is that mental illness is routinely criminalized. A psychotic defendant might get picked up by police for an outburst, then make a threat or kick the window of a police cruiser and get charged with felonies that result in being locked up when the obvious need is treatment rather than punishment.
Kerry Golub, another deputy public defender, works in the Airport Court’s drug court and Santa Monica homeless court, both of which have far more alternative sentencing options, which should help. But Golub said addiction rehab programs often reject clients who they say are too mentally ill, and yet those same clients are sometimes judged not sick enough to be conserved or hospitalized. So they end up doing circles between streets, jails and court.
Los Angeles County jails have more than 3,200 inmates with a mental illness, a number that could be halved with a greater investment in supportive housing and community treatment. And yet the county has millions in unspent rehab money, it’s leasing 500 jail beds in another county and it’s planning to build a $1-billion jail designed for an expected increase in the number of mentally ill inmates.
For several years, the So Cal ACLU has been urging the county to find alternatives to mass-incarceration of the mentally ill and, in so doing, lower the jail population.
In a letter to LA County Supervisor Michael Antonovich on August 28, Eliasberg urged against a new jail facility proposed by Vanir Construction Management Inc., that will soon come up for a vote by the Supervisors. Vanir’s proposal aims to reduce overcrowding and provide better mental health services for LA County’s incarcerated, but is an overpriced bandaid that does not address the real problem, wrote Eliasberg. Instead, he said, LA County should divert mentally ill people out of the LA County jail system whenever feasible.
Here’s a clip from the letter:
We understand that there are and will continue to be people with mental illness who need
to be incarcerated for public safety reasons. Thus, there may well be a need for a new facility
devoted to the treatment of people with mental illness, particularly if the County tears down
Men’s Central Jail. But, we believe that the facility proposed by Vanir is far too large and far
However, there is strong support among both mental health professionals and law
enforcement officials that jails and prisons should not be housing and attempting to treat a
significant percentage of people with mental illness, as is currently the case in Los Angeles.
Jail is not a therapeutic environment. No mentally ill person goes there to get well.
People with mental illness are treated and restrained to reduce their symptoms while they are
incarcerated, an approach that is not consistent with improved mental health outcomes. There is
a strong consensus among mental health professionals that treatment for mentally ill people is
most effective when delivered in the community, not jail or prison…
It is very expensive to house and treat a mentally ill person in Los Angeles County jail.
The costs of psychotropic medications alone are astronomical. The County pays the costs of
those medications while someone is in jail. Starting in 2014, the State or the Federal government
will pay for all reasonable treatment costs, including medications, when a person who is eligible
for Med-Cal or Social Security Disability is in community-based treatment, but not when they
There are a significant number of programs in Los Angeles that provide mental health
treatment as well as providing or arranging for housing and other services. The barrier to
diversion is not that there are no existing services. What must be done is arrange for the
identification of appropriate candidates for diversion, link them to services, and ensure they are
enrolled in benefits programs such as Social Security Disability and Medi-Cal.
Only if there are no other benefits programs to cover the necessary housing and treatment
would the County have to ensure that funding is available for these costs. But, the costs of
community treatment and housing are far lower than housing and treating the mentally ill in jail.
Even if the County paid for the mental health treatment and housing for people with mental
illness diverted from the jails, it would cost taxpayers less than building an enormous new jail
and then paying the operating and treatment costs for running that jail.
DO LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS NEED BETTER TRAINING ON HOW TO HANDLE CONFRONTATIONS WITH THE DISABLED?
In January, Robert “Ethan” Saylor, a man with Down Syndrome, died during an encounter with off-duty law enforcement officers after trying to sneak into a movie theater without paying. Saylor died of asphyxiation while being restrained, yet no charges were filed against the officers involved. Advocates are pointing out that this confrontation, and other incidents—like the 2011 beating to death of schizophrenic Kelly Thomas by Fullerton police—could be avoided by training police to better handle situations involving those with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities.
Salon’s Emily Shire has the story. Here’s a clip:
On Jan. 12, Robert “Ethan” Saylor of Frederick County, Md., a 26-year-old man with Down Syndrome and an IQ of 40, died of asphyxiation after a confrontation with three off-duty police officers. He was being restrained for attempting to see “Zero Dark Thirty” for a second time without a ticket. According to witnesses, Saylor’s last words included “it hurt” and “call my mom.”
Saylor’s ashes now sit in the family’s living room while the three officers continue their usual shifts. No charges have been filed.
Saylor’s death stands out as especially tragic, not only because he loved police officers. Despite testimony from Saylor’s aide that she told the officers to “be patient” and let her “handle it,” a local grand jury decided not to file criminal charges. In late July, the federal government finally took note and opened an investigation into whether police violated Saylor’s civil rights.
This slow-moving process reveals something disturbing: Our law enforcement system often fails to protect people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and, in some cases, is complicit in their abuse.
Police officers are often taught to make quick decisions. “Law enforcement training tends to focus on the fast rather than the slow, to charge ahead rather than pull back,” said Mulvaney. As opposed to teaching police officers to prevent or minimize conflict, their education often stresses a “control and react” philosophy. “You’re moving fast. You’re more apt to make mistakes.”
But fast and aggressive is the worst possible approach for interacting with people with special needs. People with cognitive and verbal challenges can have difficulty following directions, especially quickly spoken ones.
Some critics see the lack of police training in situations involving the special needs population as not merely an oversight, but a systemized bias. Mulvaney notes that police are largely untrained to work with a disability like autism, which is pervasive (one in 50 children are diagnosed with it, according to the latest studies) and growing. However, “when there’s a new drug, we train officers,” he said. “Every cop in the country knows about molly, but we’re not training them about disabilities.”
TRUST ACT BECOMES LAW IN CALIFORNIA
Over the weekend, Gov. Brown signed the Trust Act, a bill to restrict local law enforcement from handing undocumented immigrants arrested for minor offenses over to ICE for deportation. California follows after the LAPD and the LASD, both of which announced non-compliance with Secure Communities last year after California AG Kamala Harris said law enforcement agencies could decided for themselves whether or not to comply with ICE detainer requests.
Huffington Post’s Elise Foley and Roque Planas have the story. Here’s a clip:
As the Congress stalls on immigration reform, action continues in the states, and advocates and politicians in California hope they can serve as an example of how to do it right.
“While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead,” Brown said in a press release after signing the legislation into law. “I’m not waiting.”
Democratic Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, the top sponsor of the Trust Act, said before Brown’s signature that he hopes state actions like California’s will put more pressure on Congress, rather than drawing attention to the legislative fights there.
“It makes it all the more important that California be on the lead on this,” he said. “If we get the governor’s signature, it will be really a benchmark. It will be one of the first states that has gone on record about this program. … And hopefully, it will signal to D.C. that they need to start moving.”
Supporters of the Trust Act say Secure Communities makes immigrant communities fearful of police and less likely to report crime, in case in doing so they reveal their undocumented status and get into trouble.
“This is more a law enforcement issue than an immigration issue,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who has criticized Secure Communities, recently told HuffPost in an interview. “What this will do for law enforcement in California is that it will ensure that immigrants collaborate with law enforcement.”
The HuffPost article also references a recent report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University that found that approximately 11% of ICE detainers met ICE’s updated (as of December 2012) guidelines on who should be detained—namely those who pose a serious threat to public safety. The report also found that only 38% of ICE detainees had a previous record, including those who only had minor traffic violations. Here’s a clip:
Despite Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) setting new, stricter detainer guidelines last December, very recent government data reveal that six months later fewer than one in nine (10.8 percent) of the ICE detainers met the agency’s stated goal of targeting individuals who pose a serious threat to public safety or national security.
Further, only slightly more than a third (38 percent) of the individuals against whom detainers were issued had any record of a criminal conviction, including minor traffic violations. If traffic violations (including DWI) and marijuana possession violations are excluded, then only one-quarter (26 percent) of the individuals against whom detainers were issued had any conviction. See Figure 1 and compare with a similar chart showing patterns before the guidelines went into effect.
While outcomes on some pending charges may not yet be known, agency records through June 2013 demonstrate that detainers are still infrequently placed on individuals whom ICE has defined as its highest priority for removal — noncitizens who pose a serious threat to public safety or national security.
In fact, comparing agency data from both before and after the new ICE guidelines were issued reveals that fewer — not more — individuals on whom detainers were placed have had any record of criminal activity, let alone serious criminal conduct.