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Nearly 3,400 People With Mental Illness Could Be Safely Diverted From LA County Jail, Says New Report

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

Approximately 61 percent of the mental health population locked inside Los Angeles County’s jails could safely be released into community-based care, according to a newly released study from the nonprofit RAND Corporation.

As of June 2019, there were 5,544 people with mental illness incarcerated in LA County jails — about 30 percent of the total jail population. Those included in the count were held in mental health housing units, taking psychotropic medications, or both.

“There are quite a high number of people in our jails every day who are not there because they actually pose a great risk to public safety,” said LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl at Tuesday’s board meeting, “but because their offense was committed through some aspect of their mental illness.” Most of these people don’t actually need to be in jail, Kuehl said. “We certainly know” that jailing people with mental illness doesn’t improve recidivism rates, she added.

Since its inception in 2015, the county’s Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) has identified and pulled 4,305 diversion-eligible people from local jails, sending them into community programs.

The RAND study, commissioned by the LA County Board of Supervisors in August 2018, found that far more can be done to reduce the county’s reliance on incarceration and to address the fact that Twin Towers Jail is considered the nation’s largest mental health institution.

Specifically, RAND researchers suggest that 3,368 (61 percent) of those in the mental health population do not need to be locked up. RAND found these individuals to be “appropriate candidates” for diversion. RAND identified another 414 people (7 percent) that were “potentially appropriate,” but would require a more in-depth assessment of their case. The rest, 1,762 individuals (32 percent) RAND found to be inappropriate for mental health diversion generally because they committed serious crimes that made them a danger to public safety, or because they did not have a serious mental illness.

Women were more likely to be eligible for diversion than men, the study found. Approximately 74 percent of women and 59 percent of men from the group were identified as diversion candidates.

RAND points out that, in order to actually divert 61 percent or more of the jail’s mental health population, the county must come up with enough community programs, services, and housing to serve those who would otherwise be locked — unnecessarily, according to RAND — inside county jails.

“Diversion programs have many potential advantages: They connect individuals with needed treatment services, reduce the burden on correctional systems to provide these services, and may save costs without compromising public safety,” the study stated.

And calculating “how many people are appropriate for diversion is a first step toward understanding the types of programs, staff and funding that would be needed to treat those individuals in the community,” said the study’s lead author, Stephanie Brooks Holliday, a behavioral scientist at RAND.

Using a random sample of 500 people considered to be among the jails’ mental health population, Brooks Holliday and the RAND research team applied a set of legal and clinical criteria in keeping with those criteria that ODR uses to measure diversion potential among those in county custody.

Thus, it was not all that surprising that the numbers echoed a preliminary study by ODR, which found that the county could feasibly divert 56 percent of mental health inmates away from jail.

At the time, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he was concerned by the estimated potential diversion rate, saying that the ODR “might not have considered all related factors,” when they came up with that number.

Yet, so far, ODR’s programs appear to be successfully keeping mentally ill people from cycling between the streets and jail cells, according to a slightly older RAND study. Of the 311 people who entered an ODR diversion housing program from 2016 to 2019, just 14 percent had new felony convictions within a year, and 74 percent maintained stable housing after 12 months, the report found.

While most of the county’s mental health population is housed in Twin Towers, the two reports are also meaningful points in the county’s 15-year-long journey to address the fact that Men’s Central Jail is a dilapidated and dangerous mess.

In February 2019, the LA County Supes scrapped the increasingly controversial plan to replace Men’s Central Jail with a high-tech 3,855-bed “mental health jail,” known as the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility (or CCTF). The board chose, instead, to build a new $1.7 billion “mental health treatment center,” with a focus on what the board called a “care first, jail last” goal.

The secure health care facility was to be staffed primarily by the LA County Department of Health Services, rather than by the sheriff’s department. Yet, community advocates led by the Reform LA Jails Coalition, continued to rally against this new plan, as well, arguing that it was just another jail with a different name.

Finally, last August, the supes voted to cancel the lastest jail replacement proposal, choosing instead to focus on diverting people into evidence-based alternatives to incarceration.

Which is where this new study comes in — as part of the county’s roadmap toward better treatment and decarceration for mentally ill Angelenos, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said on Tuesday.

The board of supervisors created the Office of Diversion and Reentry five years ago “with the belief that appropriate treatment could do three things, Ridley-Thomas said. It could “make communities safer,” “break the cycle between jail and homelessness,” and save the county money.

But stepping up the county’s current level of diversion to meet the needs of mentally ill residents will not be easy, as the board members noted on Tuesday. Expanding access to far more services, including outpatient care in more community clinics, will be needed, or “diversion is going to fail,” said Supe. Kathryn Barger.


Image: Twin Towers Jail, via WitnessLA.

16 Comments

  • This is a FANTASTIC idea. 50 years ago these people would have been in mental asylums…permanently. But in today’s progressive, humane society, we have them living among us committing crimes and living on the streets. Our jails, which everyone agrees, have become the new asylums, are in bad shape and represent the old, silly concept of consequence for crime.

    So there are two options; build a BETTER “facility” which is actually a mental hospital/jail hybrid, where mentally ill criminals are forced to undergo treatment OR just have them bypass the “punishment” totally by being treated….in the community. Of course, eventually, the “treatment” will end and they’ll be back to where they were. Of course, today’s NON violent offenders are tomorrow’s VIOLENT offenders. Wash, rinse, repeat.

    This will, undoubtedly, fail, but timing is everything and we had the perfect storm of anti-cop, anti-jail public sentiment, the ascendant (but flawed) concept of “diversion,” and an ineffective, incompetent Sheriff who bumbled and mumbled his way though a diatribe at the BOS in support of a treatment facility that HE argued against during his campaign. It was too little too late and Judge Espinosa mopped the floor with the Sheriff when he sold the BOS his snake oil (diversion). It probably didn’t help that the Sheriff had made enemies of the entire BOS.

    Now thanks to the RAND report, the Board has its excuse to “divert” money away from the Sheriff’s Department into the coffers of the Office of Diversion and Reentry. LOTS of money.

    • Still can’t accept reality, eh? Sheriff V pointed out the obvious flaws of ODR, and you’re still whining about a staged vote that cost taxpayers a staggering $80 million, which Celeste conveniently forgot to mention.

      Bottom line is there is no such thing as evidenced based alternatives to incarceration, period. Communities fight tooth and nail against homeless shelters, imagine one devoted to mentally ill crooks. A nonstarter the board is well aware of, but will be fought on someone else’s time in office.

      The solution will remain in the footprint of MCJ, and the LASD has veto power the board is just beginning to figure out.

    • That was another classic moment. Not in favor of the new MCJ during his campaign and even after becoming sheriff. Interviewed on camera saying as much. He changed his tune in an attempt to make BOS publicly look bad because of the Mandoyan issue. He had already earned the moniker Sheriff Bait and Switch by the county Democratic Party groups and they added another one, Sheriff Flip Flop. What a buffoon.

      • “He changed his tune in an attempt to make BOS publicly look bad…” LOL, excuse me while I pick myself up off the floor. I followed his campaign, and I’m pretty sure he said he was not in favor of tearing down MCJ just to replace it with another jail. You haters crack me up. The false narrative the BOS launched lost all its luster when the facts came in, so now you guys have to try and pick through the rubble of your spin to find a pretty weak retort. He’s on the ropes, he he.

        By the way, let me know when the BOS hosts townhalls in their districts to get input on where these facilities will be located. The sheriff would be more than happy to host them and point out what the board is planning for their community.

        • When asked about building a new MCJ.

          “Too soon, let’s see if we can get community based alternatives to incarceration and push it out at the community level.”

  • The confluence of 3rd world immigration, Prop 47, and a host of other factors has relegated the once great state of California to a third world disaster.

    This ship is sinking.

    No amount of new jails, mental health treatment centers, money, or tax increases will solve the current problems.

    The political class, of which Alex V is now one of, has foresaken the interests of the average citizen in lieu of pandering to hispanics, which are now the majority population in LAC.

    Southern California, particularly Los Angeles County, is a crime infested pit that is accellerating toward a scenario akin to the Escape From New York movie.

    Thankfully, I am escaping this mess at the end of the year, and taking my tax dollars with me.

  • Having a fairly good understanding of this issue, I can say that without a doubt that progress can and should be made in this arena by getting meaningful buy-in from all our county partners. It has long been understood that holding the mentally ill in a traditional custody environment only ensures that the individual will get worse, not better. It’s long past the time when we should create a countywide mental health/addiction system that can care for these types of persons in community-based treatment facilities, and not in our county jails. There are dozens of faith-based and community-based organizations that can help provide the much needed beds/facilities. The issue is funding, or lack of funding that stands in the way.

    This problem is way bigger than any one county entity, be it the LASD, Mental Health, or even the BOS. I think the solution lies in having ALL concerned parties, LASD, Mental Health, BOS, Public Defender, DA, judges, Probation, CBO’s, FBO’s, etc., come together and work in unison to finally put a program into place that will actually mean something and actually change lives in the process. Good treatment takes money. If done properly, it is money well spent.

    Some folks balk at the estimated cost of such programs. My simple question would be, “what is the cost of NOT taking action?” If we can get 5000 people out of our jail system and into meaningful treatment facilities, isn’t it worth a shot? How many more people need to suffer needlessly, be it the people in jail or the victims of their crimes?? I applaud the BOS and the RAND Corporation for beginning the process. Now let’s move forward and get something done!

  • It amazes me how Progressives, far left leaning Democrats, liberals, dreamers, grifters, socialist, Communists and neo-#### will try to use studies with cherry picked results to support their whimisical and impractical pie in the sky attempts at society scaping. Why are California and New York the only states that can’t seem to run efficiently and are always “trying out something new” only to see it ultimately fail. Why do all the homeless flock to California, the weather in AZ and NV isn’t all that bad. It’s because CA is like a “sucker” or “dupe” you can continue to take advantage of. It’s social programs and President Trump hating politicians are the like gift that keeps on giving…with other people’s hard earned money to boot.

    This diversion program sounds like a lot of other pie in the sky, sounds good in theory and on paper collegiate hogwash that fails once real implementation is begun. Sometimes a glance back to the past and modification is what works best. The throw the baby out with bath water and say mental institutions are not the answer is disingenuous, self-serving and ignorant. Some folks be it due to self induced or organic mental illness need to be locked up and cared for for their own good and that of society.

    Keep dreaming if you think otherwise no matter what a RAND or university study says. Year round schooling was supposed to be the answer….fail. Prison realignment ….fail. High speed train….fail. Money for highways…fail. Lotto money for schools….fail. Voter approved money (billons) to address homelessness…..fail.

    Show me a succes???

    • You sure don’t complain about the taxes that are used to pay your salary – is that a failure also? Just curious. Rand and Judge Espinosa are smoking crack for sure, no argument there. Trying to paint blue states bad, red states good is a tad disingenuous. There are epic failures all over the nation, just different types of failures. How many economic refugees flee to sunny SoCal from the rustbelt? Is it our failure to accept or their failure of an economy?

      • ….I, along with many other Federal, state, county and city employees do pay “our own” salaries as “TAX PAYING” members of society. What do you do? Share those “epic failures” please. “Economic refugees”, are they cousins of the “justice involved”? Get out of here. Of course it’s always someone else’s fault for the failures of others instead of them taking responsibility for the byproduct of their own actions. Why don’t these “economic refugees” get a job and let the “tax payers” pay their salaries, nobody is stopping them, instead of relying on “tax based” government assistance and handouts?

        Unemployment across the country is at record lows across the country for those who want to work.

  • So here is some food for thought. We keep saying CA is a welfare State one which keeps giving handouts. We talk about these handout’s when it comes to Black and Latino people. However, statistics on homeless people shows that most of these people ( refugees ) who are homeless are White and, most of them come from Red States. Why are taxpayers in California responsible for their drug addictions or mental abuse issues. It is the responsibility of the Sates they come from. Has anyone thought it continues to happen because the States they come from dump them into California. Glad some of them OD in their states before they reach California.

      • @ Skippy – Every County has the numbers – just like LASD has numbers to inmates who need Psych care. Additionally, hobos from other states may have their circuits fried from doing coke – that does not mean they can’t read like a third grader. They read that California gives freebies to the homeless by raping it’s taxpayers. So yes they do come from other States to California.

  • I agree but the so called “do gooders”, aka “social justice pretenders” know that if you offer free money and services with no strings attached and virtually advertise it to the world, people will come and gladly abuse/take advantage of those free resources. Who ultimately pays the cost…law-abiding, hardworking taxpayers of the state. Whether they be folks from other states or other countries, these are users, free loaders or whatever you want to call them flock to California because their home state or country is either a “sh#thole” or savy enough not to be taken advantage of. I can’t blame the states or countries for showing these people the exit door, once less problem for them, but can blame our states political leaders for being irresponsible dupes and clowns with other people’s money. It’s either due to incompetence or elitist separatism. What I mean by the later, a view that at least I can live in areas and communities where I’m shielded from the societal decay and lawlessness my “do gooder” actions have helped to foster.

    Of…why are so many lifelong politicians millionaires? It’s sure not from their “fat tax payer funded salaries” alone. Nancy Pelosi, Gavin Newsome and President Trump wealthy. The big difference is one attained their wealth while “allegedly in the service” of the people. Whose the more despicable hypocrite?

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