In Calif., some ex-inmates get help in new ways

Scott Shafer for NPR

Francesa Anello with the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department heads up mental health services for prisoners at the county jail. She's responsible for reintegrating released prisoners with mental illness back into the community.

Under California's criminal justice realignment program, counties are taking over responsibility from the state for low-level felons. And that has affected how inmates with histories of mental illness move through the system even after they're released.

Since California's realignment began last October, the Los Angeles County jail — the biggest in the United States — has gotten a lot bigger. The county jail population is up almost 25 percent. Inmates with mental health problems end up at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. Francesca Anello with the L.A. County Mental Health Department oversees inmates serving time there under realignment.

"It used to be that we saw people short term," says Anello, "and so it was difficult to get them hooked up in the community if they're going in and out so quickly. And so we'd miss an opportunity sometimes to work with them long term."

Anello says that under realignment, mental health teams in the jail are better able to ensure a smooth re-entry when prisoners are released.

"We have a team that actually follows people for 30 days in the community to make sure all the supports are in place — so it's kind of like a warm handoff so that they don't get reincarcerated," she says.

Counties Take Over

Inmates released in South Los Angeles have 48 hours to report to the county's probation department hub in Lynwood, Calif. Kimberly Tillman, who oversees the operation, says a large percentage of clients have mental health needs.

"It can be 50 percent. Sometimes on our busy days, it can be 75 percent," she says.

In the past, former prisoners with mental health problems ranging from depression to bipolar disorder or schizophrenia would be seen at clinics run by the state parole department. Under realignment, Tillman says, it's up to counties to oversee each ex-offender.

"My fear is that someone in the community will be hurt because one assessment wasn't complete, and we didn't actually provide them with the wraparound services that they needed," Tillman says.

L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley is not a fan of realignment. He says California Gov. Jerry Brown misled the state about the real intent.

"It wasn't about public safety. It was not about rehabilitation, even though they claimed it was," Cooley says. "It was about money, so this is blood money, because there will be blood as a result of individuals who should be in prison not being in prison."

'A Safe Haven'

Many ex-prisoners end up at Project 180, a comprehensive re-entry program in the heart of L.A.'s Skid Row.

Angela Scott had been in prison on a drug possession charge. Before realignment, she would have been on state parole, and violating it might have sent her back to prison.

Now she gets regular counseling and group therapy.

"It's like a safe haven. It just makes me stronger. I never had any help, really, just go to prison. So this time I'm talking, letting it out, letting all the garbage inside out," she says.

Across the room, Warrenton Dean describes his history of gang-related crime. Late last year he was released from prison and, after talking with a county probation officer, realized he needed help.

"With my anger management, my coping skills, my life skills, my values and everything, and they told me, 'Hey, if you need the help, we can help you,' " Dean says.

Project 180 Executive Director Victoria Simon says her program has been inundated since realignment took effect.

"I think all of us are a little concerned about how quickly that is happening and can we make sure that we maintain the quality of care," she says.

Simon adds that so far state funding has been there to cover additional expenses.

Under realignment, agencies like hers are keeping close tabs on ex-felons.

"They're here virtually every day, so it's Project 180 staff, not probation, that knows the clients that are doing well, the clients that aren't doing well, the clients that have relapsed, who's having issues," Simon says.

That's an unexpected benefit of realignment — that social service agencies and law enforcement in California are collaborating in ways they never did before.

Copyright 2012 KQED Public Broadcasting.

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