LA County DA Jackie Lacey: Getting mentally ill out of jail is a priority

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While the L.A. Board of Supervisors moves forward with its plans to construct a new jail for mentally ill inmates, the L.A. County District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, is pushing to keep mentally ill people from entering the jail population.

"This is the time, we're so much more enlightened about mental illness,"says Jackie Lacey, L.A. County’s top prosecutor.

Lacey took over as L.A. County District Attorney in December 2012 and says rethinking how to deal with mentally people in the criminal justice system is one of her priorities.  She points to people who are arrested largely because they do something fairly innocuous while in the midst of a mental health crisis.

RELATED: LA supervisors OK spending $30M on plans for new jail, refurbishment of women's facility

She, like other county leaders, says it's time for Men's Central Jail to go, but has not endorsed or condemned any specific plan for replacement. She has said there are alternatives for mentally ill in the system.  

On Tuesday, the L.A. Board of Supervisors move forward with a plan to overhaul the jail system at a cost of $1.8 billion.

Lacey says there are about 1,000 current county jail inmates who would likely better be served in residential treatment. There may be others who would best be served by some other form of community mental health care. She’s convened a countywide task force to figure out how to reshape the county’s criminal justice system to keep those with mental illness from unnecessarily going to jail. The task force meets at a summit at USC later this month.

Lacey sat down with KPCC to talk about how to create alternatives for these kinds of cases in L.A. County.

How can the process change?

So [Assistant District Attorney] Bill Hodgman went to Miami-Dade, Florida. I went to Memphis. The Memphis Police Department has one of the best training programs in terms of having officers deal with those people who are mentally ill. They’ve given me their program, all of their materials. They’ve mapped out other alternatives where we could decide, given the right set of circumstances, that people are referred to a regional medical center. Or various different places. As opposed to it always being the judicial process. There are some people who have to go through the judicial process, but rather than send them straight to state prison or county jail, there are all these different alternatives and options. So I want something like this for L.A. County.

What are the risks?

The risk is that you will release a person who will go out and hurt someone. And that there will be a "Willie Horton" moment. Which is what got a guy knocked out of a presidential race. Being blamed because one person that you made a decision on went out and hurt people. So there's definitely a risk. But this population of people is worth it, if you think about it. Some are just so violent, so dangerous, that we're not going to be able to do much but try and make the best of their custody time. But there's a whole lot of people who are not as dangerous, who are not violent, and who we can and should do better by. 

Would the pressure on the system to create alternatives still exist if the county goes through with building a new mental health jail?

It probably won't, right? Because if there's a locked facility that can accommodate a lot of people, we can probably continue on the route we're going now. Which is to say if you're in crisis, and you meet a certain criteria and commit a crime, then that's where we're going to put you. But it depends. We'll see. 

Lacey's convened a countywide task force to figure out how to reshape the county’s criminal justice system to keep those with mental illness from unnecessarily going to jail. The task force meets at a summit at USC later this month.

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