Columns, Op-Eds, & Interviews Los Angeles D.A. Race

Op-Ed: Yes, we should stop treating mentally ill people like criminals. Jackie Lacey is part of the problem.

WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

By

Eric J. Miller and Nikhil Ramnaney

It turns out everyone is a “progressive prosecutor.” Even when they are not. District attorney candidates are cannibalizing the trendy new liberal designation of “progressive” with paper policies that often do not match the reality, and no one is pushing this through-the-looking-glass notion of progressivism harder than Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.

In a recent op-ed, Lacey argued that “the criminal justice system needs to better treat people living with mental illness.” She’s right about that. But her column — and subsequent campaign ad touting the creation of her office’s Mental Health Division — merely pay lip service to a problem she continues to exacerbate.

LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey announces new Mental Health Division

While Lacey appears intent on bolstering her credibility by trading on her personal and professional experiences with mental illness, she has failed to implement reforms that match her rhetoric. In her op-ed for the Hill, she told a story about a family member who had drug and mental health struggles, which Lacey said gave her a firsthand look at how poorly the system is equipped to deal with these problems. She described the inadequacy of jails to treat people with mental illness, noting the detrimental mental health consequences of incarceration. And she acknowledged the revolving door that exists because of the legal system’s failure to connect people with supportive services after release from jail.

These realities, according to Lacey, led her to pursue a program that offers alternatives to incarceration to some individuals with mental illness. In addition to channeling people away from jail or prison, she claims her priorities include training and funding geared toward identifying and addressing the needs of people in crisis.

On paper, this may look like a commitment to diverting the mentally ill away from cages and into treatment. But Lacey has repeatedly failed to deliver.

The truth is that few officials are responsible for jailing more mentally ill people than Lacey. As we write this, there are around 5,300 individuals with some form of mental illness locked up in Los Angeles jails. According to a study released in April of this year by the LA County Department of Health Services, approximately 2,900 of that 5,300 could be safely released into community-based housing and treatment services.

Another study published by the Rand Corporation in the fall of this year found that such community diversion has led, statistically, to far better outcomes in terms of stability and lack of recidivism, than being locked up. But despite the important efforts of the County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry, the majority of those potentially eligible to live and be treated in the community instead still languish in Los Angeles’s dilapidated, overcrowded jails.

Lacey’s work on mental health and the justice system began in 2015 when she published a “Blueprint for Change,” which, among other things, promised systemic reform of prosecutorial practices. But that change somehow has failed to materialize.

In January of this year, Lacey announced the creation of a new Mental Health Division in her office. Surrounded by members of the LA County Board of Supervisors and various LA law enforcement leaders, she said she wanted her deputy DAs to “make courageous decisions and do the right thing” in cases where prosecutors could “help another human being in crisis,” rather than criminalize them.

To date, however, the DA’s office has failed to fully staff the newly created Mental Health Division, which reportedly still only employs around three attorneys, far below the 12 who are supposed to be helping to identify cases for mental health diversion. And based on what we and our colleagues repeatedly observe, the division has provided no discernable specialized training to help prosecutors shepherd people into diversion programs, reduce punitive charges and jail sentences, and facilitate successful reentry. This lack of investment is leading to long pre-trial custodial stays that further harm the mental health and treatment of the individual and enforce the paradigm that they must be punished.

It appears that, rather than teach prosecutors about the unique circumstances found in cases involving people suffering from mental illness, Lacey’s office is still encouraging DAs to fight mental health defenses. Moreover, when defense attorneys file petitions for diversion we hear of case after case where Lacey’s Mental Health Division routinely objects, citing factors that reveal her office’s poor training, lack of awareness, and continued stigmatization of individuals with mental illness.

Public defenders are particularly aware of how the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office under Jackie Lacey still preys on those suffering from mental illness — all part of a broader office culture that prioritizes winning over justice. There are numerous cases in which individuals who have been found mentally incompetent to stand trial and are in jail receiving psychiatric care, end up facing further charges because, in their distress, they have acted out in some way related to their diagnosis.

Yet, because these crimes take place within a custodial setting, they typically carry enhanced penalties. But, as Lacey herself says in her op-ed, heaping petty charges on mentally ill people serves no purpose. It’s counter-productive, and only does further damage to vulnerable people. Knowing this, Lacey could use her discretion and simply choose not to prosecute these sorts of cases. But instead, her decision to allocate resources in this ineffective manner reflects her office’s continued dismissal of the realities of mental illness and incarceration.

While it’s evident Lacey hopes to use mental health reform to bolster her progressive credentials amid a reelection bid that has already drawn four challengers, the daily on-the-ground decisions made by the prosecutors under her leadership send a very different message. Unless something changes quickly, all Jackie Lacey’s talk of her commitment to more compassionate treatment of those with mental illness is little more than politically expedient rhetoric.



Eric J. Miller

Eric J. Miller is a professor and Leo J. O’Brien Fellow at LMU Loyola Law School.

 
 
 
 

Nikhil Ramnaney

Nikhil Ramnaney is the President of the LA County Public Defenders Union, AFSCME Local 148.

21 Comments

  • Nice try but not buying it.

    The state lawmakers in their infinite wisdom have changed the laws throughought the state and defined the legal box all DA’s have to work under? Only the most violent crimes are prosecuted, and the courts give not only light/suspended sentences, but use diversion programs liberally as prescribed by state law. It’s laughable to mention antiquated jails when the LA County Board of Supervisors cancelled any opportunity to build a new state of the art mental health treatment center or jail for that matter to replace the antiquated Men’s Central Jail.

    The DA’s Office is doing triage and prosecuting the most violent individuals and holding those mentally ill folks to answer who represent a clear danger to public safety. The state has made sure there are no other viable mental health treatment options (lack of bed space in the few state mental facilities, no new prisons being built) for the most dangerous and severely mentally ill.

    Politically motivated and biased OP-Ed ment for the compost heap….

    • LOL is right on target. It’s turned into nothing more than a con to avoid being held accountable for criminal conduct. The title of the article should read, “Op-Ed: Yes, we should stop treating criminals like mentally ill and stop their con game. Jackie Lacey is doing more to protect the citizens than ultra-lib George Gascon would do.”

  • “In their distress, they have ACTED OUT in some way due to their diagnosis.” Wow…they are really trying to sugar coat it. This “writer” is suggesting g that them acting out is in some form of a tantrum like a child would throw. That couldnt be farther from the truth. These cases of the mental population “acting out” are crimes such as assault, battery, sexual assault, gassing and so on. These arent little problems that could be looked over. These are serious crimes which I’m positive the writer wouldn’t want any of these crimes to be committed on themself or their loved ones.

  • This kind of whitey white elitist politics plays well in places like San Francisco where politics are run by upper class progressives, who openly sneer at middle class working people. Snobs don’t like to think of themselves as snobs ,so they invent reasons to look down upon the middle classes and signal to each other how virtuous they are. Pretty safe bet that mister exclusive university guy, located in an affluent area, isn’t going to have to deal with the violent crazies he’s pushing so hard to release on the working class parts of town.

    But Los Angeles is not San Francisco. Los Angeles has its enclaves of wealthy progressives but Los Angeles is a real city with real diversity. As the election of Sheriff Villanueva shows, the elitist progressives don’t always get their way. I’m rooting for D.A. Lacey, because watching progressives fail is great fun.

  • So if Soros is funding Gascon’s campaign, as he has other District Attorney races, in order to screw up our society and the peace of those who make it up, are these two authors motivated by something other than objectivity (sarcasm) to slam Lacey? I hope WLA isn’t also gonna be motivated to help Gascon by Soros and other evil doers. That dude is a train wreck for good people in so many ways.

  • WLA Guest? Come on C, give it a rest. This has so much BS it isn’t worth responding. Who wrote this Jorge? Oops! I meant George.

  • I do think it is time for a little reality check. Progressivism may be the new shiny toy of the Democratic Party, along with the fresh faces that were thrust on us in 2018. Both, however, are unmitigated disasters waiting to happen, and the silent majority of Americans are not quite so enthused. The third disaster, at least from the perspective of the far left, will be the way the silent majority rejects these social experiments – four more years for President Trump. I’ll leave the fresh faces to be dealt with at the ballot box, but the Soros-funded attack on the criminal justice system has already worn thin. Crime is through the roof in LA, and the re-classification of many felonies as misdemeanors, thanks to Prop 47, does not mean there’s less crime, it just means that there are less felonies. I ask you, if your car is broken into does it matter to you whether it’s a felony or a misdemeanor? You are still a victim of crime, you still have the same anger, frustration and loss – you just don’t have any justice. No, the justice now belongs firmly in the corner of these ‘justice system involved persons.’ They are the victims, apparently. The rest of us are the problem. I do hope DA Lacey starts to reveal to the public the true nature of the disaster that was Prop 47 – its deceptive title the “Safe Schools and Neighborhoods Act” and more importantly, its architect, yes none other than George Gascon. DA Lacey has been criticized at every step of the way that she has tried to introduce new approaches to tackling crime, her mental health diversion program does not go far enough, according to some, and that’s because there remains, supposedly, a large number of mentally ill ‘justice system involved persons’ incarcerated in county jail. But please don’t forget that the job of a criminal defense attorney, sorry, ‘justice system involved person’ defense attorney is to do the best job for the ‘justice system involved person,’ and not to protect public safety. How many questionable applications are there for mental health diversion? A defense attorney would be committing malpractice if he or she did not at least try to claim his or her client has a mental health issue. So there is the inevitable abuse of the system, and the DA’s new Mental Health Diversion program is overloaded with largely meritless claims. Why not write about that?

  • Healthy Skeptic, build more jails? Surely you jest. You might be one of the mentally ill that folks are advocating for because I do not think any sane or rational person, liberal of conservative, will say we need more jails. Scary.

    Cognistator, I love how you verify everything with and do your research through Google. I can imagine your college papers with all the references to Google. And you wonder why you did not make it past the police force.

    Major Kong, why so angry. I’d bet with overtime you make close to what the law professor makes. Unless tenured, they do not make what they used. Some of the folks on this site that write atrocious police reports probably make what he does. But, you are partially right. Despite the high income, that does not raise your status. Look at Trump, worth a few hundred million, perhaps more now given that he is president, and he still fits in better in a double wide on a hill in coal country than in the White House. But, you are doing well, do not be so angry.

    Finally, why doesn’t one of you wise and learned creatures write a piece for WLA? If I were Celeste I would let you, if for no other reason that for the laughs. Perhaps Cognistator can do it. I would love to see those google references on his op-ed.

    • @CF- Why waste their time writing an article that goes against WLA’s agenda. All of their hard work at making weak minded people, like yourself, believe what they want you to believe will go down the drain in one single article.

      Also, so what if someone adds references from google search to back up their facts. I’ll believe their facts over your absurd way out of the ballpark claims purely based on links related to what they are talking about. Maybe you should start adding references to your posts as well.

    • CF:

      “And you wonder why you did not make it past the police force.”

      I do not wonder that at all. After my retirement from LASD in the ’80s I worked as an Automotive Electrician until my Social Security retirement at age 65 or thereabouts, based on my grade of “B” in Automotive Electricity at L.A. Trade-Tech in the ’70s & passage of A.S.E. certification tests in Automotive Electricity & Advanced Automotive Computer Controls. The A.S.E. certification tests are formulated by ACT, the folks who make up the College Entrance exams.

      You will note that my link is an original source, gotten through a Google search. Nothing wrong with that.

      My Baccalaureate is in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley.

      My GPA at Berkeley wasn’t terribly high, but I could pass the police written exams without too much effort.

      Hence, my time in the LASD.

      Before College I was an Army paratrooper, serving in the 187th Infantry. It can be Googled if you want to know more about it.

      I am a graduate of the parachute jump school run by the 101st Airborne Division before its reconfiguration into a helicopter assault division.

  • Wow, Cognistator, I am impressed. For someone who whines so much about the government, you sure benefited from it’s largess. You are a subsidized baby boomer. You went to Berkeley, a state institution, which, based on your age was dirt cheap, a bargain compared to today, even adjusted or inflation. Say, thank you, government.

    What you were required to pay as tuition, if anything, was probably paid with the GI Bill, a government program. Say, thank you government. You then worked for the LASD, a county department, where you got that nice pension that allowed you to retire early and start a second career. Say, thank you government. Then you went to Trade-Tech, a public institution, where your education was subsidized. Say, thank you, government. Out of curiosity, did you buy your home with a VA loan? And, as a technician, did you work for some government department? And, are you saying you also got Social Security? Now that would be the proverbial straw.

    What separates you from many of the homeless and others you rail against, is that you were lucky to be born in an earlier time when an average student could still get into Berkeley and could afford to do it without mortgaging their future. If I were you, I would not open my mouth about government waste. You lived high off the hog (no pun intended) at the taxpayer trough. So much so that even the children of the millennials will be paying for all of the goodies you got from the government

    • “If I were you, I would not open my mouth about government waste.”

      You have me confused with somebody else–government waste has never been a topic in any post I wrote, nor has railing against the homeless, except those who got that way through drug addiction.

    • Gee cf, you make it sound like college was a lot better in the old days. Seeing how the progressives have had their way with these institutions for at least generation or so, what have they done to screw the whole thing up?

  • CF…..WOW! Words escape me as I shake my head after reading your asanine comments and response. You’ve gone to new lows by insulting a hard working military veteran, “state school” college graduate, “Boomer” as you called him, former police officer who through his hard work and actions has done more for the country than you will ever do. He’s worked “real jobs” and paid taxes to keep the wheels of government greased and turning. What have you done but bitch and wine. He’s been educated at UC Berkeley which you tried to downplay and insult by your referring to it as a “state school”. Where did you go to school? Probably some unaccredited online scam university your mommy and daddy paid for.

    Your a pathetic loser who really does need psychological help for your testing you personality disorder.

  • Mayor and City Attorney for SF endorsed Jackie Lacy. Wow! I guess Jorge(ops I meant George) will need more blood money from Soros.

  • Wow, Conspiracy, the words (and their meaning) do escape you. The reference to the state school was to highlight the subsidized nature of the education Mr. Cognistator received, not to the quality of that education. Berkeley is a fine institution, and an even greater deal given the taxpayers paid for it. I, too, am indebted to the taxpayers of the great state of California.

    The boomer reference, was a reference, commonly used, to a certain generation that, given Mr. Cognistator’s comments, I believe Mr. Cognistator is part of. I’m sure you have heard of it before, but want the opportunity to whine a little. Go ahead and vent. I would rather you do it here than on the street taking it out on some black kid.

    I know Mr. Cognistator did work, as he listed his work history. They are real jobs, but the law enforcement job, as you no doubt know, is a nice job, some would say cushy, with very generous benefits that no one in the private sector gets. Thank your union, and the government, of course.

    In regards to my education, as I mentioned in the past, and as you no doubt would agree, I am not that bright, which is why I like this site. I feel smart here; you make me feel smart. And, I have people like you to thank for that.

    Finally, I am sorry I do not get as wet as you at the mention of military “service.” If you tell me you fought in WWII, I would be impressed and give you your due. It took a lot to fight in a foreign land with an opponent as well armed and worthy as you were. Those Nazis meant business. If you tell me you were in Vietnam, I would feel sorry for you for what the government did to you in sending you to fight a war you had no business fighting and for being embarrassed by sandal-wearing little men that kicked our ass and then seeing your cohorts ending up the street devoid of the pomp and circumstance you profess to give them. If you tell me you fought in Granada, I would say you must be kidding if you think you earned your VA benefits for that. And, do not mention Panama, as that was criminal So, it depends. If you cared so much about veterans, you might help some of the ones on the street or in prison, or maybe the ones who have gotten deported. Yes, they are part of the groups you bitch and whine about. Now, stop being a hypocrite.

  • CF…you wrote a hole lotta nothing to try and quslify, fix, explain, walk back and wiggle out of your insults. Not happening. If you something stupid, condescending and insulting just stick to your guns and continue to own.

    Everyone knows you represent the lowest of the low and worst of humanity.

    Carry on Nut Job ..

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